Conflict of Interest Lord Knows I’m Not the Guy to Ask About Ethical Journalism
posted by June 7 at 17:52 PMon
This is going to be a longish, possibly confusing post, since I have to be very vague about the particulars. Apologies in advance.
I have a friend…let’s call her “Jen,” who works as an editorial assistant at a Seattle publication—kind of a niche publication.
Today, Jen got an e-mail from a writer at a much more prominent Seattle publication—let’s call her “Diane.” The e-mail, minus redactions, went exactly like this:
[Jen,] I’d like to introduce myself. I’m in the market for story ideas, and was wondering if we could talk for a bit. I’d love to know what kinds of issues are going on, if there’s anything recent that’s been frustrating you or a recent…issue that you think is interesting.
I look forward to hearing from you!
All my best,
Jen was confused by this e-mail, because, in addition to being an editorial assistant, she’s a gifted writer herself, and she understands that, in the journalism world, story ideas are kind of the coin of the realm. You don’t just give away your pitches to other people. But Jen was feeling nice, and wondering if maybe the letter was just poorly worded, and so she sent back an e-mail to Diane:
I’ve forwarded your message on to my editor, [Name redacted.] Any story pitches can be sent to her. (Editorial inquiries intended for her often make their way to me).
And Jen dutifully forwarded Diane’s e-mail along to her editor. A few minutes later, she got this response from Diane:
Oh, sorry for the miscommunication! I was just looking to you as someone who might have ideas for a possible story, given your unique perspective. I’m sure you see and hear some interesting things that us common people don’t!
And now Jen was livid. She wrote me an e-mail asking if, in fact, Diane was trying to poach ideas from Jen’s publication and then cover them as if they were her own ideas. Granted, I loathe Diane’s publication, but it looks pretty cut-and-dried: this e-mail might as well read: Do my work for me. So Jen sent an e-mail back to Diane:
As a writer myself, I find it somewhat odd that you are contacting someone at one publication for story ideas for another publication. I’m not sure what you mean by “unique perspective” but clearly I would be professionally and ethically bound to pass along any…story ideas I know of to…my employer.
I hope I was understanding you correctly. If not, my apologies. And, of
course, [Name of publication redacted] always welcomes queries and pitches from [new] writers.
And then, a few hours later, Jen got this response from Diane.
Hi [Jen]— Apology greatly appreciated!
All my best,
And that, besides Jen nearly popping a vein in her brain out of apoplectic rage at the snotty-ass response, was that. I guess I feel as though Diane ought to understand that her e-mails and responses were entirely out of line, if not downright unethical. There are journalistic sources and then there’s scamming ideas wholesale out of other publications by buying coffee for pissed-off interns, and I think that that’s what Diane is doing. I hope that her publication will pay heed to what their writers are doing and maybe tug on the leash a little bit..this town is too small to get away with this kind of bullshit.