The Ethics (& Economics) of Freebies

When does material support from a source require disclosure? For entire classes of freelancers, the answer isn’t always clear.

By Zan Romanoff

Back in November, the New York Times’ travel editor, Amy Virshup, issued a series of tweets addressing critics of the Times’ famously severe policy on freebies and junkets, which forbids writers from accepting anything from the industries they cover — including for stories the freelancer may be writing for publications other than the Times.

“It’s become clear,” she wrote, “that there is a group of writers who feel very aggrieved that, because they have taken free trips and then written about the places paying their way, they cannot write for @nytimestravel… I understand their frustration, [but] we believe that taking a comp casts a shadow across the work — how can the reader, who is really the important person here, be sure that the view is not colored by the freebie?”

The outcry sparked by Virshup’s tweets reveals much about the current state of journalism. Since publications increasingly rely on freelancers instead of hiring full-time staffers, an ever-growing class of writers is struggling to figure out how to juggle competing ethical standards between the publications they write for. These calculations are critically important to young writers building careers and reputations, but also to the institutions who publish their bylines. More than ever, media outlets are conscious of the need to clearly differentiate between sponsored content and honest journalism, and preempt and defend against accusations of “fake news.”

In theory, journalistic ethics are simple: writers shouldn’t pay for access to subjects or sources, or be paid by those subjects and sources to write about them; outlays should be provided by the publication, and limited to the bare-bone requirements of reporting, such as food.

But in some cases, this just isn’t possible. Consider writers covering the automotive industry. They are almost always reliant on loaners from car companies, even when they have full-time jobs at well-funded publications. Reviewers trying to get pieces about a new novel or lipstick published when those things debut need preview access, which precludes buying in store. In these instances, where some work with PR professionals is expected, it’s particularly critical that publications have ethical guidelines that protect both their reputations and their writers’ ethical bona fides by setting out rules.

However, those guidelines aren’t always publicly available for curious freelancers considering a pitch (or readers who want to know who’s paying for the sausage to get made). The Times is unusual for publishing theirs online.

Editors occasionally provide guidelines directly to writers once a piece has been sold, but this is rare.

“In three years of freelancing, I’ve never worked with a publication that [sent freelancers its ethics guidelines unprompted]. Many don’t even offer any sort of style guide,” says Anna-Cat Brigida, who runs the pitching newsletter Pitch to Payday. This means you have to know to ask for them, and not all freelancers do — particularly if they’re new to the profession and trying to break in without any guidance or mentorship when it comes to industry norms.

Having the rules in hand is only half the battle. A writer working for several publications might find that there are conflicts between two of their outlets; what is kosher for one is a career-killer at the other. For instance, if you are a food writer, you must keep in mind that Eater allows its editors (but not its critics) to attend media dinners, where a publicist pays for a group of writers to eat a meal showcasing a new restaurant or updated menu, whereas Bon Apetit prefers that none of its pieces come out of press trips. The Times, of course, will expect three years to pass between your last PR dinner and your first byline in the paper of record.

Freelancers work for everyone and no one. Because of this unique situation, it becomes their job to spend (unpaid) hours figuring out how to split the difference between various outlets’ standards. This gets trickier when you consider that writers rarely know who will accept a given pitch, and thus are often pitching multiple editors the same story.

So why don’t writers just forgo PR contacts and pay their own way every time? Well, because even when your beat isn’t luxury cars, it can still be pricey to visit every restaurant or sample every lipstick you think you might (but are not yet sure) you want to write about. And freelancers are, as a rule, pretty broke.

Though it’s difficult to get any comprehensive data on the matter, Ben Carruthers, Vice President of the Society of American Travel Writers, recently suggested that rates in his industry haven’t risen significantly since 1977. Combine this with the fact that freelancers typically only submit an invoice after a story has been pitched, accepted, written, edited, and published — a process which can take anywhere from a few days for a timely digital piece, to a calendar year for print features — and you’re looking at a workforce that is almost always cash-poor.

It’s great that, as Vishrup points out, the Times pays for its writers’ story expenses. But what about travel writers who are looking to break into the industry and don’t have enough bylines to place their work at such a well-funded institution? Or those who can’t front the cash for a trip and bank on paying their bills once the checks come in?

Paul Adams, a food critic, has what he calls “a bad allergy to PR.” He doesn’t attend publicist-sponsored events, or even read their emails. He explains that he got his start in the beat as a young, broke person because “I cooked in restaurants for a living, which eventually gave me enough expertise that it was worth publications’ while to pay for me to eat.”

However, “My haughty stance was only ever possible because I worked for publications that fully paid my expenses,” he continues. “If that weren’t the case, I’d probably have wound up in an entirely different beat, like science reporting.”

In an era of influencers and #partners, when every person is a potential brand ambassador, and you can’t even trust product reviews on retail websites, journalists have to work particularly hard to convey that they are not paid promoters but instead independent and, as far as is humanly possible, objective.

This is particularly difficult in a landscape where most media consumers are not tutored in the difference between accountability and access journalism — much less the fact that a beauty writer at a major publication has a very different job than the person writing sponsored content and native ads for the same outlet. (Never mind a YouTuber who might be recommending a product in the hopes of guaranteeing a partnership with the brand in question.)

Disclosures like those required by bloggers of the Federal Trade Commission do some of this work by alerting readers to the presence of gifts or freebies in a journalist’s research: the theory being it is better to acknowledge upfront what was a gift than to pretend otherwise. This strategy can be messy — it invites readers to wonder what, exactly, has been bought and paid for in the story when they might otherwise not consider the question — but hopefully it encourages a conversation about the complications of ethical behavior, instead of categorizing it as a black-and-white issue with hard and fast rules of right and wrong.

Most freelancers hope that, ultimately, the work will speak for itself: they can’t rely on a single publication’s brand, so they know how important it is to build their own. Stef Schrader writes about the automotive industry, where, she acknowledges, “Without manufacturers chipping in for travel and providing cars to test, my personal ability to cover auto news would be severely limited in scope.” So while her pieces will never be entirely without disclaimers, she thinks readers can, with a little work, figure out who’s writing honestly, and who’s just trying to make publicists happy.

“Look into a reviewer’s byline — does that person ever say anything critical?” she says. “Compare reviews of the same car from different outlets to suss out who’s worth reading and who simply regurgitates PR talking points. Learn to recognize honest names. That’s all part of being a responsible consumer of media.”

As for being an honest producer, that remains up to each freelancer to determine for herself. Without a single clear code of conduct to abide by, in an era when the old rules don’t always apply, there’s nothing to do but go ahead and make your own. Meanwhile, a media industry that increasingly praises diversity would be well-served to consider what legacy policies might be standing in the way of actually diversifying the socioeconomic make-up of its newsrooms and mastheads.

Zan Romanoff is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles.

Production Details
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Last edited: January 8, 2019
Author: Zan Romanoff
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash