By Matt Cooper published November 18, 2015

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


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.


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

  • Michael Harris

    Here is an example of journalists creating content marketing for SAP that I liked. I felt they told a good story.

  • Grannelle

    Yet another argument in favor of formal social media education. #Ethics are taught in SM academic programs, while they may or may not be learned simply by “getting a job.” Thanks for some excellent insights.

    • Lisa Dougherty


  • Greg Strandberg

    What’s the point? That’s what I think a lot these days.

    Yesterday I wrote a 2,300 word article on Syria and foreign affairs and never once checked my word count or grew bored while writing it. It had tons of links and was better than many of the media outlets are putting out.

    When I write sales content I don’t have as much fun. But you know what? People like the ad copy a lot more than news items that might make them think. Usually people want to forget the news. I see this on my site when a marketing post gets around 300 views in a day or two. The news pieces get that in a week or more, if they’re lucky.

    The sorry state of our local newspapers proves that people don’t care about news. My local paper is a huge advertisement with a little bit of news. They bombard you with ads all the time because they’re running out of money. People do not care about their product.

    So how can you blame someone for switching from journalistic posts to marketing posts? Follow the money…everyone else is. Let’s not forget that many are, and they’re doing so with that concept called “Newsjacking” that we first read about last year. It’s a content strategy some might want to look into.

  • Robin Sherman

    I applaud transparency and am happy that many marketers are now on that bandwagon, as well as following many standard journalism ethical practices.

    But that does not make content marketers (or brand journalists and the like) journalists.

    Let’s be clear about at least one important difference between journalists and content marketers.

    The content marketer has an agenda to promote a company’s product or service, writing on behalf of same company, for the financial gain of that same company. The content marketers primary client is the company, whether the marketer is internal or external to the company, just like any advertising or PR agency. In either case, the content marketer is paid by the company to write about the company. Content marketers have an inherent bias toward the company that employs them.

    As an aside, I am aware that marketers often say that their real client is their customer. That is commendable but not entirely true. If it were completely true then the marketers would talk about their competition perhaps in a useful, balanced report. The customer as client is largely a red herring in the context of a discussion about the essential difference between journalists and content marketers.

    In contrast, the journalist’s agenda is to write to the needs of no one company, but to the public or the readers in a specific market. That might mean writing about one company or a multitude of companies. But the journalist is not paid by those companies. The journalist has no agenda to promote any company.

    By the way, to be more transparent, content marketers should at least place their bios at the top of the stories they write. Let the readers know what your bias is from the beginning, not at the end.

  • star1234

    I was freelance for almost 40 yrs–before the markets tanked with those five-buck stories that used to pay $500. I did commercial and reporting. I was a regular writer for WebMD–but not for any drug companies or doctors. I wrote case studies for Apple for many years–and I do remember MIT getting upset with that and not hiring me for reporting. Another time, some snooty editor at the Wash Post sniffed at my promotional ballpoint I included in a package of clips. Oh, my dear! I wrote op-eds for the Post but never for her. My feeling was I had to make a living–and I could tell whether something was a conflict or not. I also brought it up with the editors. Better to know ahead of the effort if they were going to have an issue.

  • Rodika Tollefson

    Great points on a topic that could use more transparent discussion. Traditional media as we knew it a decade ago no longer exists and journalists, like anyone else, have to adapt to survive. That doesn’t mean using unethical practices but it does mean a well-trained and ethical journalist can live in both worlds.

    I disagree with Robin that the content marketer’s sole agenda is to promote a company by writing about it. I’ve been writing for legacy media for 15 years and last year began contributing to a blog that’s sponsored by a company. My editor and I don’t treat my articles any different than we would if a media company paid for them. There’s not a single mention on the blog about the company’s services or products, just a logo at the bottom disclosing sponsorship and linking to the company page.

    On the rare occasion when an expert from the company is interviewed for the article, the relationship is fully disclosed. The articles are as straight-arrow journalism as they come. I don’t even have to worry whether or not I’m interviewing experts from a competing company. The only thing that connects the dots between the sponsor and the articles is the topic, and even then we cover a much broader part of the industry.

    I realize this is not necessarily the norm for all content marketers but I believe there are plenty of great examples out there on how it can be done without crossing the line.

  • aboer

    Great piece Matt. I am glad you took this on. I also read that (excellent) piece by Amy Westervelt. It led me to some self-reflection, as an employer of people like her.

    A half a decade ago I was quite passionate about Content Marketing as a new approach to marketing. I thought it could solve some very thorny problems:

    1) An alternative to increasingly irritating and interruptive ads
    2) a solution to declining online content quality
    3) the employment of content creators at a reasonable, living wage.

    And on all of those fronts I think it has been a huge success.

    So five years later, why does the work leave me uneasy?

    It could be as simple as this: once you ask someone like Amy to do something that she loves *only* for money, without recognition or achievement, you are taking something important away from her.
    I don’t want to overstate the argument–I don’t think it is unethical…but it isn’t optimal.

    My hope is content marketing’s most successful form will be a patronage mode that encourages creativity and independent thought; and become a legitimate replacement for a dying publishing industry.

    But most brands now view “thought leadership/ideas” as part of their competitive advantage. And they want to both appear authentic (“the smart people that we are, we thought of this”) and convey their own agenda.

    Ghost writing can be ethical–but by definition, it can *never* be authentic (unless you choose to stretch the meaning of authentic).

    Brands still tend to ruin content. Even a kid can see it.

    Just yesterday, I overheard my twelve year old son talking to his friend about a YouTube show he really likes called Game Theory. “Yeah, its really been going downhill lately, ever since it got sponsored by Microsoft.”

  • Ashley Stryker

    I believe the issue here is more that a journalist shouldn’t have an opinion or perspective, really, or at the very least let that perspective taint the facts. On the other hand, bloggers-cum-content-marketers can run stories that are more biased, less nuanced, and targeted to generate a specific result.

    Here is where the line of ethics is drawn for me: If my company believes that, say, purple leotards help students learn better, I can’t–as a marketer and employee for that company–publish a blog post that promotes blue leotards because purple leotards aren’t as effective.

    That’s where the line is between a content marketer and a journalist.

  • Super Hero

    As we all know Copy and Content writers are trained to be persuasive. Journalists are trained to be unbiased. In marketing, that’s a critical difference. But journalist has a vast vocabulary and they know how to present a topic to the taste of the audience. They know much about credibility, spelling, grammar, typos. As long as he/she know the ways in writing for a brands, so why not? I think talents that experienced journalists can bring to the table.

  • Doug Crowe

    This has been going on since the invention of the printing press. While the editorial staff and ad staff are often separated by walls and policy, we all know what goes on behind closed doors. With the explosion of content and platforms, is honest journalism easier or more difficult to discern?