Should an Ethical Journalist Ever Do Sponsored Posts?
Because this one time, I did.
Sixty percent of Americans believe reporters get paid by their sources sometimes or very often. Initially, I was shocked by this stat, from a Reuters/Ipsos poll for the Columbia Journalism Review, exploring Americans’ (lack of) confidence in the press.
My journalism training at the University of Florida included an entire semester of Ethics of Mass Communication. One of the rules that stuck with me most was, Don’t accidentally take home a source’s pen.
Journalists are taught the imperative to be — and appear — impartial is so vital to journalistic integrity, that not paying (or being paid by) a source isn’t enough; you need to make sure you don’t take their pen, or give them yours. Something as small as a pen could look like a gift, could sway the narrative, or more likely make others imagine the narrative was untrustworthy.
But if anyone can get online and hit publish, that means a whole lot of self-trained journalists never got the ‘Don’t accidentally take home a source’s pen’ memo.
I viewed myself as a professional journalist; I would let nothing stand in the way of Truth with a capital T. Meanwhile, I did music reviews for the college paper, sifting through the large stack of CDs bands sent us for free. For free?…wait a minute.
Yes, the official preparation on how to be a journalist is all about impartiality. But, at some publications, there are a lot of little blind spots.
I received four years of journalistic training — okay, it took me six years, but I got it done — but anyone can be a journalist today. I do most of my writing on Medium, where one does not need a journalism degree — or any degree — to reach a large audience.
College remains out of reach for many, so removing the barriers to publishing is an overwhelmingly positive thing. Also, we all benefit when we read voices from experts in non-writing fields.
But if anyone can get online and hit publish, that means a whole lot of self-trained journalists never got the Don’t accidentally take home a source’s pen memo.
And so the line between journalist and paid influencer can blur.
Add in all the product placement everywhere we look — think Coke in Stranger Things — plus how hard it is to make a living writing, and it’s no surprise both readers and writers think it’s normal for writers to take whatever they can get.
Since a few of my essays have gone viral, I’ve received increasing messages on Twitter and Instagram asking me to “collaborate.”
Collaborate is the code word businesses use for sending you free or discounted products in exchange for you promoting them.
The requests I’ve received this month range from feminist-themed T-shirts to marijuana edibles.
I realized, with writing, just like everything else, whether someone will pay you to do something is not the best measure of whether that thing is worth doing.
I haven’t taken the bait.
But I understand the temptation.
And this one time, before I started writing on Medium, I wrote a sponsored post.
I was contributing two articles a week to an online parenting magazine, for zero pay. I told myself the free work was temporary, as the editor kept assuring me, once this new magazine sold more ads, their first priority was to pay the writers.
One day, I got an email from the editor: She had an opportunity to get me paid! $65 for an easy 400–500 word piece promoting a gambling website.
“So this is how freelancers make a living now?” I thought.
“We don’t need to put your name on the piece,” the editor assured me.
So I wrote it. And they paid me. And I was thankful to be a paid writer. But I cried.
Because what a messed up world we live in, if all the writing I put my heart into paid nothing, while I got money for this piece of capitalistic fluff. I realized, with writing, just like everything else, whether someone will pay you to do something is not the best measure of whether that thing is worth doing.
Capitalism will always value money over values.
The 60 percent statistic breaks down to 25 percent of respondents who believe reporters are paid by sources “very often” and 35 percent who say “sometimes.”
The gambling website wasn’t a source per se. And the magazine identified my piece as a sponsored post. But still, I wonder if that experience puts me in the “sometimes” camp. Or if, when I wrote that piece, I ceased — however briefly or not— to be a journalist.
Personally, when I read the New York Times, I have faith there is no exchange of money — not even a pen — between the reporters and their sources. It helps that the Times shares their impressively detailed Ethical Journalism Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial Departments. They are remarkably dedicated to ethical journalism.
Personally, I’m more of an essayist now than a reporter. Still, authenticity is key. When I write about something — whether it involves a product or my sex life — I want readers to know they can trust me to tell the truth as I see it.
I’d love to continue to make a living as a writer without ever doing another sponsored post.
But if we as a society don’t foster a world where journalists and artists can survive without sacrificing ethics, we’re going to see a whole lot less authenticity and a whole lot more sponsored posts.