By Matt Cooper published November 18, 2015

Is It Ethical for a Freelance Journalist to Work in Content Marketing?

ethical-freelance-journalist-cover

In a Medium article, Amy Westervelt detailed her journey from journalist to content marketer and back to journalist. For several years she ghostwrote columns for CEOs, with many appearing in venerable outlets like Forbes and Entrepreneur. Most of her content gigs paid much higher rates than Amy could demand as a freelance journalist. “Corporations realize the value of good writing and they’re willing to pay for it,” she wrote. “Increasingly, they’re more willing to pay for it than advertising, which is more obviously promotional.”

And yet she said goodbye to content marketing. Why? In a five-point list, she explains how she’s grown increasingly uncomfortable writing advertorial content, which Amy blames for contributing to the demise of her previous and once-again profession – journalism.

But is it just advertorial content? Does content marketing exist for no other reason than to hawk a product or service? And can freelance journalists take on content marketing assignments without feeling that they’ve stepped over some kind of ethical line?

First, we must acknowledge that unethical, “black hat” marketing exists. Earlier this year, Digiday profiled a self-described content marketer who regularly places articles in traditional media outlets without disclosing that she’s been paid to include links to corporate clients.

If at any point it’s unclear who wrote a piece or where his or her interests lie, then there’s a good chance that the content, the content creator, and the content publisher are entering an unethical territory.

That being said, I think the best and most effective content marketing is in no way advertorial. It’s about providing information of value to your target market, not about hawking your wares. Journalists should feel free to engage in it without worrying that they’ve crossed over to the dark side. Furthermore, I think content marketing has the ability to improve the media marketplace. Here’s why:

Content marketing isn’t purely self-promotional

When it’s done well, content marketing doesn’t serve as a direct plug for your product or service (you’ll notice that throughout this article I never once make an appeal for you to engage with my company). Instead, the content is geared toward displaying an expertise and forming a relationship with the reader. By providing valuable content to your target demographics, the hope is that value transforms into awareness, positive sentiment, and user loyalty down the line.

Content marketing provides journalistic value

Whenever journalists set out to write an article, the first people to whom they turn for an interview are experts on that topic. The journalists serve as a filter. Content marketing allows experts to communicate their expertise directly to the reader, and this sometimes – not always – provides more informational value than if it came from a traditional news source.

If you’re a lawyer who practices law every day, chances are you have more insight into legal issues in the news than many of the reporters who are covering that same news.

In many ways, content marketing is similar to the kind of reporting in trade publications. Depending on the industry, you may find thought-leadership content on a company’s blog that is superior to what’s available in the industry’s trade magazines.

The ethics of content marketing are the same as the ethics of journalism

“To be an effective journalist you must hold yourself to extremely high ethical guidelines,” says Scott Roen, vice president of digital at American Express. “I don’t think there’s a difference in ethics as a brand journalist versus any other kind of journalist.”

Whenever you’re producing a piece of content, whether it’s a form of traditional journalism or marketing, it should be clear to the reader what the potential conflicts of interest are, usually in the form of disclosure. Sometimes the disclosure is self-evident because the content has been posted to your company website. Other times, a simple mention in your bio of where you work will do (you’ll notice my bio at the end of this piece includes my company and title).

Some content marketers take it a step further by issuing their own code of ethics to which they intend to adhere. These rules most often boil down to being as honest as you can with your readers. As long as readers understand your point of view, including your biases and conflicts of interest, then they can read your content with the appropriate grain of salt.

Communication with your editor is key

Sometimes journalists fully cross over into content marketing. But more often, these freelancers split their time between brand and traditional journalism. In those cases, transparent communication between writer and editor will help avoid ethical pitfalls. If you are a writer and an editor asks you to cover a story in which you think there may be a conflict of interest, simply tell her. In some cases, a simple disclosure will do. In others, she might ask you to skip the story and work on something else.

This is the same kind of disclosure that’s already in place at many publications. For instance, in every Business Insider article about Jeff Bezos or Amazon, the content includes a disclosure at the end of the piece which states that Bezos is an investor in Business Insider. Readers then can decide for themselves whether they should take that content with a grain of salt.

Ghostwriting can be ethical

Some journalists struggle with whether they should ghostwrite articles on behalf of corporate executives – they think if the executive didn’t author the piece, the executive’s byline shouldn’t appear on it. Not all executives are professional writers or have the time to author an article, but that doesn’t mean they should be prevented from sharing their expertise with the world. Think about a presidential speech. While Barack Obama delivers the words – and means them – he usually isn’t the person who wrote the speech. His audience understands that.

Conclusion

As the head of a content marketing company, I consume a lot of content, both business-related and for my own pleasure. I increasingly find myself reading a high-quality article or watching an engaging video that wasn’t produced by a traditional news organization, but rather as a piece of thought leadership that fits under the larger banner of content marketing. This kind of content does provide a valuable service, and journalists shouldn’t feel ashamed to provide that service.

In a world in which the news industry is facing uncertainty, content marketing offers brands a chance to complement and even enhance reporting occurring at traditional news companies, and journalists are the most well-equipped to help these brands do it.

Want to learn more about whom to have on your content marketing team? Listen to CMI’s webinar on The Content Marketing Service Bureau: How to Structure and Optimize Your Content Marketing Team.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Matt Cooper

Matt Cooper is the CEO of Visually , a content creation platform that enables businesses to connect with their audiences through premium visual content - created fast and cost-effectively by highly vetted creative professionals. Matt is passionate about the latest visual content marketing trends and best practices for video, infographics, e-books, presentations, web interactives, and more. Follow him on Twitter @matt_cooper and learn more via Visually’s blog.

Other posts by Matt Cooper