January 3, 2010

Define Ethics, Control Ethics

I spent about 10 years as a magazine freelancer after my stint in the newspaper business. I had many “rules” that guided how I conducted my business. Two of them (somewhat related): Never work for publications that want to buy all rights (work for hire), and never work for publications that want to control how you conduct your business when working for other publications.

I never worked for The New York Times. I never tried. And I never would try today. Not worth the hassle. Clark Hoyt’s column today explains why.

I’m a big Hoyt fan. I think the Times has done an excellent job choosing public editors.

I have one nitpick about Hoyt’s column today. Here’s the e-mail I sent to him:

Hello Mr. Hoyt…

I found your column today about freelancers fascinating. I’ll be using it in my media ethics class this semester.

While I generally agree with your conclusions and approach, I do have one concern: I do not think you did enough to assert that the NYT code of ethics is specific to the Times and is not an expression of what journalism ethics are or should be. By not making this clear, you leave the reader to infer that Tripsas and Albo are unethical people — clearly not true, IMO, given the evidence of your column. They merely ran afoul of Times policy (for reasons that are partly the Times’ fault, as you note). They did not act unethically. I think this is especially so for Albo. The Times treatment of him is, IMO, outrageous. I generally agree with Postrel in this regard.

The Times does not define journalistic ethics. The journalists and managers at the Times may define ethics for the organization in any way they please. But readers should never be left to infer that freelancers who run afoul of the more idiosyncratic rules are unethical. Despite your obvious efforts to report these situations in a fair and balanced manner, I believe your column still leaves the false impression that Tripsas and Albo are unethical people.

I think it is clear that Robinson acted unethically by long-agreed standards in journalism.

That said, I remain impressed by, and appreciative of, your efforts as Public Editor of The New York Times.

Best regards,

Andy Cline

Andrew R. Cline, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Journalism

Robinson is clearly guilty of violating a long-standing ethical standard of journalism: Don’t misrepresent yourself. His actions are clearly unethical and ought to be condemned in harsh terms.

But what of Tripsas and Albo? Do they deserve to be in the same company — the same column — with Robinson? I think not. Given the evidence of the column, they are not bad people. And so I wonder about making them “disappear.” I wonder if transparently working with them, instead of casting them off (with all that implies), would have been the more humane and ethical policy.

7 Responses

  1. Tim 

    diverse -> deserve

    Just to add links to a mysteriously missing narrative in Hoyt’s ethics narrative:

    Hoyt: He Works for The Times, Too

    Pogue violated the NYT ethics guidelines on public speaking

    “I Am Not A Reporter!” Pogue Declares

  2. acline 

    Tim… Thanks for the edit! And the links.

  3. Tim 

    Economist faulted for his ties to Obama

    He said, he could recall only three or four instances in the past year when reporters asked him whether he had an administration contract.
    “Generally they don’t ask and I don’t think it’s an issue,” Gruber said. “I understand the concern, that people who don’t know me think, ‘Gee, his opinion can be bought.'”

  4. Tim 

    The Real Problem: NYT Lets Freelancer David Pogue Bend Ethics Rules. It’s Time To Either Enforce The Rules Equally, Or Change Them.

  5. Tim… More good links! Thanks.

  6. Tim 

    The Sources’ Stake in the News

    The ideal expert source is entirely independent, with no stake in an outcome. But in reality, the most informed sources often have involvements, which is why they know what they know. Readers are entitled to disclosure so they can decide if there is a conflict that would affect the credibility of the information.

  7. Tim