5 Things Ethical Article Writers Don’t Do

Do you consider yourself an ethical article writer or blogger? Whether you write for print publications or the web, professional ethics are an important part of building trust with readers and clients, which is part of what keeps them coming back for more.

My ethical standards won't necessarily look like yours, and vice-versa. For example, I have ethical issues with writing about certain topics that I don't feel are appropriate.

As an example, I wouldn't take on marketing copy for a company selling tobacco or articles supporting companies that I consider harmful to my audience. But beyond the issue of avoiding article topics you might consider unethical, how else can you maintain high professional ethics when writing for clients or even on your own blog?

Let's look at five things ethical article writers wouldn't do:

1. Steal / Plagiarize

Obviously it's wrong to steal material from another writer and slap your name on it. But ethical article writers also don't "rewrite" articles from another source (a derivative work which is still a copyright violation without the original copyright holder's permission). And if they pull inspiration from a single piece and want to expand upon the original article, they should cite the original source. Being inspired by another's article and rehashing it are very different things.

2. Lie

This should go without saying, right? Yet it's not unheard of for article writers, and bloggers, to flat-out lie in order to make a point. I remember one blogger a few years back who I caught lying on numerous occasions. For example, they started promoting something they used to speak out against. And when someone called them out on it, they lied, saying they'd never spoken out against the issue at all. That's because they deleted the older posts, and without realizing that email subscribers still had copies in their inboxes.

Lying is always a stupid move. Don't fudge stats, quotes, or anything at all to make a point in your articles. Either call your article what it is -- an opinion piece, paid advertorial, etc. -- or re-think your premise if you can't find facts to back you up.

3. Libel Someone

Along those lines, don't spread malicious lies about other people. I'm the last person who will ever tell you that you shouldn't call out BS when you see it, if you're the type of writer who's willing to do that and if it's appropriate for the article you're writing. But if you're going to go on the attack, keep it factual. Being negligent or willfully spreading lies that could hurt someone's reputation could cost you (and your clients) dearly.

4. Fail to Disclose Sponsorships and Affiliations

Ethical article writers don't hide conflicts of interest, such as writing a supposed news story about a paying sponsor, client, or company they're an affiliate of. This is especially important when there's any direct compensation involved, such as paid link placements within content, affiliate links, or a sponsor having any kind of control or influence over the article content itself.

5. Skip Fact-Checking

When writing new pieces or other articles that rely on supporting facts or information from third parties, ethical writers don't ignore fact-checking. That involves anything from double-checking statistics to verifying allegations with other reliable sources.

Look. Everyone makes mistakes. And ethical standards vary from person-to-person and publication-to-publication. But sticking to these guidelines can help you avoid crossing an ethical line you might later regret.

What other ethical guidelines do you follow in your article writing -- whether that's journalism, blogging, or some other kind?

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8 thoughts on “5 Things Ethical Article Writers Don’t Do”

  1. Right on, Jenn. Sad isn’t it, that such a topic needs writing. Ethics is a fascinating topic. I took an ethics class in college and it was amazing how far apart our beliefs can be. Culture plays into it as well as our own personal experiences.

    There are more than 50 shades of ethics.And I’ll give a nod to E.L. James to keep that on the up and up. 😉

    • Very true Cathy. I remember taking a course in media law and ethics — “fascinating” is definitely the right word to describe it. It can be shocking what some people consider ethical (and what others don’t).

  2. To this I would add “protect sources.” I don’t just mean when reporting on stories about criminal activities, which I have done; I’m also careful with people who have little experience dealing with media, so make statements that could have serious repercussions they cannot anticipate. Unless an inflammatory remark directly relates to the issue, I leave them out. I also make strategic use of ellipses when quoting dialog, to avoid making people sound as foolish as most of us do when speaking without a script.

  3. Hi Jennifer! This is a great reminder of the ethics all writers should be following. It’s too easy to steal articles online these days, and I also like the point about sponsorships and affiliations, since so many writers are trying to make money online. I worked in and taught journalism for many years, and I lived by these same ethics and tried to instill them in my students.

  4. Like you, I have some very clear topics I won’t write about and industries I won’t work for (I broke my own rule ONCE, as a favour to a friend, and still feel terrible about it!).

    I feel that, as freelance writers, we also have an ethical responsibility to our clients, including things like considering not working for two companies that are in direct competition. Obviously, most of us have specialisms, so some crossover is bound to happen. But I think you *know* if you’re not being fair or ethical, and then it’s time to act.

    • Very true Philippa. While industry specialists are going to end up working for similar companies (and a part of being a freelancer means that clients aren’t in a position to completely forbid it), there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed. The most obvious one that comes to mind is using inside information about one client when working on a project for a competitor. If it makes you feel guilty in some way or like you’re “cheating” on another client, that’s a solid red flag.


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