Should we ask who we are writing for?

Writing for some titles can test personal ethics, says Ross Davies E

arlier this year, I was approached by an Italian newspaper, which wanted to ask about my availability

to report for its new English language section. I had lived in Italy years ago, but did not recall said publication. A quick check revealed it to be owned by one Silvio Berlusconi. Most descriptions had the outlet down as right wing in its politics. The thought of writing for Italy’s infamous former leader made me baulk, as did the idea of contributing to a publication whose political leanings were far from being in step with my own. But, still, I confess to not being

entirely unswayable. At the time, I was wallowing in post-Christmas penury. “Am I in any kind of position to turn down work?” I asked myself. I could always go unbylined. Besides, while sharing the same political affiliations as one’s employer can be a boon, it is not strictly a prerequisite for a journalist. I was toying with these thoughts

when I came across an unsavoury news story that made my mind up for me. The very same publication had, it emerged, handed out copies of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf to its readers a couple of years before. This caused controversy, with the editor refusing to stand down, claiming that the give- away had been made in the interests of ‘education’. This, I decided, was beyond the pale. I

would not and could not bring myself to work for a publication with such a morally dubious reputation. I felt

ashamed that I had even contemplated the prospect.

Where do the boundaries of acceptability and personal ethical codes intersect for journalists? How does one justify turning paid work down? This is particularly so for today’s freelances, who are increasingly short on money. The offer of commissions from some organisations poses quite the quandary. The proliferation of media outlets online means, on the face of it, there is an unprecedented welter of choice over potential gigs. However, this is tempered by the contraction of well-paid work, meaning freelances risk spreading themselves thin, working for organisations that are not always clearly defined. Most journalists i meet – particularly those in the trade press – are aware of the sometimes contradictory nature of their work. One spoke of writing for a raft of energy titles, including an oil publication, despite being an environmentalist. “These are not be my preferred

outlets by any stretch,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But it’s hard to turn down work. I justify it by saying that the articles themselves aren’t against my principles, as they tend to be dry and informative. I feel like I’m more reporting on what’s happening than promoting it. But, then again, perhaps I’m just a giant hypocrite.” Another, an avowed pacifist,

contributed news pieces to a militarywebsite. “I think some compromise is necessary wherever you write,” he said, also under anonymity. There aren’t many, if any, publicatons

that are morally perfect. Many will also publish something that one may find distasteful. I also don’t think certain bad articles necessarily preclude writing good pieces for a newspaper or magazine.”

It is telling that some I approached for this piece bristled at the mere suggestion of neglecting their moral compass. But, from my own experience,

compromise-or-die ideals are rarely found in newsrooms, let alone freelance work spaces. In the name of balance – and, dare

I say it, worldliness – journalists surely cannot be expected to occupy the echo chambers of uniform opinion and perspective. But most – including myself –

“ ”

I feel like I’m more reporting on what’s happening than promoting it. Then again, perhaps I’m just a giant hypocrite

support the idea of a conscience clause, for which the NUJ has campaigned for some time now. This would offer contractual protection to journalists in the event of their refusing assignments that go against their ethical code. As NUJ national newspaper organiser Laura Davison asserted a few years ago: “No journalists should be disciplined or suffer detriment to their careers for asserting their right to act ethically.” Among the countless online media

outlets springing up at a rate of knots, some are alarmingly nebulous in their descriptions. Job briefs can be vague. Occasionally, the lines blur between editorial and advertorial. The obvious first step towards

avoiding an ethical dilemma is knowing your publication beforehand. If I had accepted work from the aforementioned Italian newspaper, only to discover later down the line of its Mein Kampf free-for-all – well, I’d have only had myself to blame.

theJournalist | 09

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