Ethics and Writing — Are You on The Right Path?

Rather than spend time on the Internet over last weekend, I decided to reread passages from some books on my bookshelves. That’s where I came across a section called “Etiquette and Ethics” in Writing for Money, a book by Loriann Hoff Oberlin. I must say I agree with the basic rules she outlines in the book.

Oberlin knew that when you are granted an interview for a publication, it doesn’t mean you can market that interview somewhere else. As an example, she uses her working with Family Communications in Pittsburgh, the production company for TV’s Mr. Rogers series. When she learned that the popular show would be celebrating 25 years on public television, she began producing a series of articles about the show, based on an interview with Fred Rogers, plus faxed questions and telephone followups. Her stories appeared in Hemispheres, The Saturday Evening Post, parenting magazines and other publications — all the result of her good working relationship with the production company.

“They trusted that I would place stories only in reputable publications, and they also knew that I kept in touch with and ran my ideas past their public relations staff,” Oberlin said.

She cautions writers to be careful when people you interview ask to see your article before you turn it in. “Allowing sources to preview your story would be allowing a form of censorship,” she said. “The public expects reporters to work uncensored and free of such constraints. We journalists shouldn’t have to fear that our sources will change their recollections, words or ideas to a more acceptable point of view. Also, by giving this kind of advantage to one source, you would give that person unfair insight into the information your other sources give you.

“Don’t misrepresent your credentials,” Oberlin warns. “Never tell someone you are on assignment for a publication when you are not, and watch that others don’t either.” Months after an interview, she recalled reading in a source’s newsletter that she was “on assignment” for several publications, when in reality she had only answered an intern’s questions about what magazines she wrote for and where she would be pitching the proposed story. “I was not pleased with the way he had misrepresented me,” she said.

She would also not be pleased, I think, with an ad I saw recently that was looking for writers to produce fake testimonials for an ebook going into production. What is equally unpleasant, in my opinion, were the scores of writers lined up, eager to write those fake testimonials. When the ad was reproduced on a freelancer’s post, the comments were very much against writing fake testimonials. Evidently those applying for the job could not see that they were going way beyond acting in a truly ethical manner. In my opinion, this is in the same category as writing papers that high school and college kids can turn in as their own. Those writers all need some ethics classes to set them on the right path.

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