broadsideblog

Stop Lying About Your Journalism 'Credentials'!

In Media on January 3, 2010 at 11:42 am
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 14:  The New York Times he...

Ride that pony, kids...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Today’s New York Times carries the weekly column on ethics and standards by the paper’s columnist, Clark Hoyt.

Last week, The Times parted company with Joshua Robinson, a prolific young freelancer who represented himself as a Times reporter while asking airline magazines for free tickets to cities around the world for an independent project he was proposing with a photographer…

Robinson, two years out of college and highly regarded by Times editors for whom he has freelanced, said that he never connected his Times work with the approach he made to airline magazines seeking free international travel in exchange for articles and photos. He said he called himself “a reporter for The New York Times” — which he is not — only to establish his “street cred” with those he was soliciting, and not to imply he was on the newspaper staff.

“It was an honest mistake,” he told me. “To me, this was so far removed from anything I do for The Times, it didn’t seem applicable.”

Get a grip, kid. Really. There are dozens, likely hundreds of freelance writers who produce copy for the Times who refrain from using the paper as an artificial crutch. Yes, it’s a nice clip and gives us street cred. But not because we lie about our relationship to the paper; we’re a “freelancer for the Times” or “a regular contributor”.

Using the word “reporter”, as anyone knows, implies something else, better and more prestigious. Very few journalists will ever get an interview at the Times, let alone a job offer. Those who do get hired — contrary to many fantasies — tend to keep their noses very, very clean. They like their job, the salary, the prestige and access it affords, their colleagues. Some are also still protective of the larger organization, loyal to larger notions of what a newspaper still is or should be or can be. Or just to the Times itself.

I’ve twice in 20 years made errors that had an editor there call me, demanding an answer and a correction — now. I know the pressures that editors are under and how incredibly difficult it  can be to gain and keep their trust. I’d already written many, many pieces for the paper when I approached a new-to-me editor a few years ago who said, “Well, it’s a bit of a risk.” I’ve gone on to write a lot for this person and we’ve enjoyed a collegial relationship. I didn’t like the apprehensiveness about my skills, but I understood it.

That’s how they think. That’s how a freelancer needs to think about working freelance with anyone there, as a writer, illustrator, photographer. It’s not all about you.

This crap gives freelancers a bad name, one we already have with many people who just assume “You’re too lousy to get a real job.”

We all know that Times‘ clips can open some terrific new doors, inside and outside of the paper; I got yet another email yesterday from a younger writer desperate to write for them and eager for my contacts there. I’m proud of my work for the paper — and stupid and unethical behavior, by any writer, makes me nuts.

It will also make my life with them a lot more annoying as every editor will now feel compelled to climb up my rear with a flashlight to make sure I’m not being deceptive with them and my sources.

When outright lying about your affiliations — which you know full well adds deceptive value to your brand — doesn’t “seem applicable”, it’s time to think about what “applicable” means.

Everyone but you?

  1. Wow, you didn’t hold back your personal opinion, did you? I agree with you completely. If a journalist tells a lie, he or she loses consummate credibility with editors and readers alike. Your comment about a flashlight up your rear also pleasantly surprised me. You are usually so salubrious.

  2. of course no one should misrepresent their credentials — in no small part because news sources have a right to know where their comments will appear. People are more likely to speak on the record if you’re writing for the NYTimes than if you’re writing for the National Inquirer.
    But I draw the line at the Times setting ethics rules for people who are writing for other publications. In fact, here’s my take on it — let me know if you disagree. http://trueslant.com/claudiadeutsch/2010/01/03/arent-ethics-grand-when-someone-else-is-paying-for-them/

    • Claudia, I couldn’t disagree more with you. When someone does work occasionally for an employer, the employer has the right to expect the individual to comport him- or her -self by a defined code of ethics. After all, freelancers also represent whomever they write for, not just themselves. The writer has a reputation that follows him or her wherever he or she goes. Tiger Woods didn’t hurt anyone but his family and himself. Yet his former employers (most of them)have dismissed him. So, I think the times has a right to compel its freelancers to conduct themselves in a reasonable and honest manner. Finally, freelancers who don’t like it can always look elsewhere.

  3. I am so angry about this that, no, I did not hold back. If this were the first such example, I’d bite my tongue, but as Hoyt points out, it’s happening more and more. It’s bad enough so many journos are losing their jobs — and joining the ranks of freelancers — but who (anywhere?) is making clear that ethical behavior isn’t solely attached to a paycheck.

    Journo’s may have to be the builders of their personal “brand” (language I abhor) in the world of social media. But no journalist worthy of the name lies and deceives and s/he wrecks what left of our struggling industry with such behavior.

    Claudia, I don’t like the endless nosiness of the Times in this respect. They get a lot out of their freelancers for the pay and freelancers, de facto, answer only to themselves and the IRS.

    But. A huge but…What’s to be done with or about these morons who cheat and lie and “forget” to mention conflicts of interest? I’ve recused myself from paid assignments for the NYT and WSJ because of these. It can be done.

  4. I guess this just goes to show the desperation of the industry right now. Journalists, especially those right out of college like this man, will do what the can to break a story or write a great investigative piece. He established some cred with the Times, but was by no means a “reporter.” And you know what? He probably knows he shouldn’t have said that.

    I’m an editor at my school’s newspaper (where editors change over every year) and I’ve seen applications that are complete lies. They’ll say they were respected writer/reporter/what have you a year ago but needed to take time off personally and now want to be on my staff again. But in reality, I know because I’m good friends with past editors that they were either fired, quit or just plain weren’t that good as a journalist.

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