More freelancers and bloggers want to be seen as trusted resources. For many writers, that means trying to adhere to journalism ethics. But what does that mean when you're offered a free trip?
In the last few weeks, several fellow writers have approached me with some variation of the following:
I've been offered a free trip if I write about _________. Is it ethical to accept a free trip?
The world of travel writing is full of the debate over who pays for travel, and what they expect from the writer in return. Things get tricky when you consider traditional journalism ethics. On the one hand, if you work for a respected journalism outlet like the New York Times, you're not going on press trips paid for by someone you are covering or who wants you to write about them. That's because a strict code of journalism ethics, from the Society of Professional Journalists, says you shouldn't accept free travel, or do any number of things that could put your credibility in question.
In the world of freelance writers, however, things are a little more flexible.
(Note: I'm backing away, from calling myself a journalist. I'm trained as a journalist, and I have a fancy journalism degree, but, by God, I'll accept free travel when it's offered, and I'm becoming too politically active locally to run around telling people I'm currently a journalist. Hooray for rebranding. Again.)
When Should You Accept a Free Trip?
The press junket is a long-standing tradition, paid for by movie studios and other entities that want coverage. Freelancers and writers from smaller publications that don't have budgets to pay to send someone to interview movie stars are often the most common folks who take advantage of these trips. Just accepting a free trip doesn't make you unethical, even if you aren't adhering to the strict journalism ethics put forth by the SPJ or by some of the most-respected publications.
Before you accept a free trip (or a free product or service), examine your own personal ethics and decide what matters to you, and what lines you won't cross. Being a freelancer is tricky because you don't have the resources of a major publication to pay for your travel, but if you are going to attend a conference, a screening, or something else, you might need to let someone else pay for your trip.
As a freelancer, I've been fortunate to have many trips paid for. In some cases, publications have paid for me to join their coverage teams for different events (as when I joined Salt Lake City Weekly one year to cover Slamdance). In other cases, I'm invited to attend conferences in the hopes that I will write about what I've learned. Obviously, when a publication pays for me to go somewhere, I'm on the right side of strict journalism ethics. When someone else pays for it, I slip into that shady gray area.
Here's how I rationalize trips that many of my “true” journalist colleagues would probably frown on (yeah, I'm totally corrupted by online freelancer, professional blogger culture):
- Is it something that fits with what I'd write about anyway?
- Is it relevant to my audience, and something they would be interested in?
- Can I write about what I want to write about, and submit it where I want to submit it?
If the answers to all three questions are “yes,” I go ahead and accept my free trip. I recently attended a conference put on by a credit union industry player on someone else's dime. They asked me where I thought I'd submit my article, and lined up a bunch of interviews. I was clear ahead of time that I would choose angles that seemed most relevant to my audience, and that resonated with me. They had some ideas about where they would like to see my article, but I was clear that it wasn't a done deal, and I would have to wait and see what made the most sense.
I've also turned down free trips. If something doesn't feel like a good fit, or if there are too many strings attached, I decline. When folks try to dictate which publications they want the articles to appear in, I shut it down. I won't guarantee a publication, or a publication date, or that I'll even use what I end up with.
On trips like this, the potential for a great deal of content at various outlets draws me. Plus, I usually end up meeting people who can be sources for me in the future, podcast guests, or partners for The Plutus Awards. (Maybe that makes me extra icky because I'm using the free trip as a way to do more than one thing.)
Another consideration is whether or not the publication you write for wants you to go on this paid trip. If someone is paying you for your work, you need to talk to them before you accept a free anything. Does your trip meet the ethical standards the website or publication sets for itself? A few years ago, a freelancer for the New York Times was canned after going on a paid trip, even though the trip was meant for other areas of his work, not for his work with NYT. Check with your editors before rushing off on these trips because you don't want to wind up in hot water elsewhere.
It's a PITA because freelancers often need to take the work they can, and cultivate potential sources and material to set them apart in a field that's increasingly crowded. Everyone wants to strike it rich as a blogger, or save money as a traveler, or sit at the computer in jammies all day making money as a writer.
Will They Ask You Back?
A subtle issue you deal with when accepting anything free, whether it's a sweet new product to review or an all-expenses-paid trip, is how much you want them to ask you back. Naturally, whoever pays for your trip wants a solid ROI. If you don't write about something that helps them in some way (SEO, high-profile mentions, sending traffic, positive press), what's the point? If you haven't provided solid value, they aren't having you back. Period. They took a $1,000, $1,500, or $2,000 — or more — chance on you and it didn't pan out. Lesson learned. That mistake won't be made again.
Ask yourself whether or not you are letting your good experience influence you, either consciously or subconsciously. Did you write something with a positive spin because you hope they will pay for you to come again? Do you hope that your most recent trip and your reputation for being good to work with will get around so others will pay for you to attend their own events?
That's not necessarily a bad or unethical thing. I'm picky about which events I attend on someone else's dime. If I don't feel like I'll actually get anything positive out of it, or if it's unlikely to result in something interesting for my readers, I won't go. I want to be able to write something nice when I travel on someone else's dime, so I don't accept invitations to events I think have little to recommend them.
In the end, as traditional journalism as we know it (especially print) dies a slow death, it's an interesting ethical problem to consider. Can writers afford to write without some of these somewhat gray areas? Do strict journalism ethics apply to freelancers and bloggers? Do you even want them to, as long as you are comfortable with your own personal ethics?