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Thursday, June 7, 2007

Lord Knows I’m Not the Guy to Ask About Ethical Journalism

posted by on June 7 at 17:52 PM

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.

RSS icon Comments


Dear [Stranger],

Hello! I read your blog regularly. I hope you enjoy the tannis root and rabbit stew! I made it myself! It's lovely! [CACOPHONOUS LAUGHTER REDACTED]

[Matthew Fisher Wilder!]

Posted by matthew fisher wilder | June 7, 2007 6:06 PM

Paul Constant,

Great (weird) story. I loved the post. But please: Never ever use the word "journalistic."

Posted by Josh Feit | June 7, 2007 6:07 PM

Dear Josh,
What word should I use instead? Newsistic?
Paul Constant

Posted by Paul Constant | June 7, 2007 6:12 PM


Posted by monkey | June 7, 2007 6:17 PM

Let's play a game of "Who Has The Ethics Issues"?

Posted by phenics | June 7, 2007 6:29 PM

Hmmm... the first email sounded to me like Diane was fishing for some newsroom gossip, or inside dirt on the publication itself -what writers were pissed at what editors or something - rather than trying to get ideas for stories from a competitor. Did Diane want Jen to bitch about Jen's boss so Diane could print a snarky story about the competition?

Posted by Lark Hawk | June 7, 2007 6:43 PM

Whoaaaa there. The only way this whole thing makes any sense is if this "Diane" was actually someone at "Jen"'s publication trying to see if she was giving away ideas, a la Jenna Rink in "13 Going on 30."
Anyone in the media knows that this not at all kosher. And it's beyond stealing, because she flat out asked. I'm baffled here.
I know I got wicked pissed when a reporter at the paper in the next town over ( who used to work at mine) wrote something awfully similar to my feature on k-9 police training (even using the same sources!) That girl, however, would know she was being a bitch and just wouldn't care. This Diane seems too clueless. SO methinks it's a ploy. Or hopes. Diane sucks.

Posted by courtlyn in Pennsyltucky | June 7, 2007 6:52 PM

I agree with LarkHawk. It immediately seemed apparent to me that "Diane" was looking for dirt on Jen's publication - maybe a newsroom spat or scandal at her paper. The whole "if there's anything recent that's been frustrating you or a recent...issue that you think is interesting" line makes it obvious she's fishing for discontent.

Posted by AlexW | June 7, 2007 7:38 PM
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.

Diane has heard a rumor about Jen's paper and wants some information from Jen about it. "Apology greatly appreciated!" means that Jen was not "understanding [Diane] correctly." That's why Diane said she accepted the apology.

It's not that mysterious.

Posted by Angry Andrew | June 7, 2007 8:05 PM

It seem like a good time to feed the paper lots of BS stories about the staff. Personally I would love to read a story in "Diane"'s paper about Dan trading blowjobs for salary with the interns. (Although, I guess it's too late now that the e-mails have been slogged)

Posted by Leeerker | June 7, 2007 8:31 PM

"Common people" indeed. On the plus side, you got some content out of the whole mess, and that's gotta count for something.

Posted by Boomer in NYC | June 7, 2007 8:52 PM

Snork, snork, not sneeze, sneeze 'n cough (at the same time), tragic exhale. Ha ha ha. Ah ha ha ha.


Posted by hillarrius | June 7, 2007 9:12 PM

I think that it's pretty clear that [Diane] is a poorly programmed alien clone/robot. What kind of human could ever end the phrase "apology graciously accepted" with an exclamation point? I smell a linguistic uncanny valley.

Posted by dirge | June 7, 2007 9:20 PM

@ 6, 8, and 9: I hate to pull a George W. here, but the redacted information is kind of important: Jen's publication in no way competes with Diane's publication, and Jen's publication is so niche-y that even if it were going under...which I don't think it wouldn't be news in Diane's publication, or gossip anywhere in the Seattle mediasphere.
Even if you are right, though, Diane behaved horrendously, and if she was trying to get information, she went about it in entirely the wrong way. It's just bad...newsisticism? Truthinessistic-ness? Something. Christ, I need a drink.

Posted by Paul Constant | June 7, 2007 9:32 PM

I think it's pretty clear that [Diane] is trying to get into [Jen]'s pants using thinly veiled sexual innuendo ("anything ... frustrating you?"). [Jen] clearly recognizes this, but being the tease that she is, she plays dumb. Finally, [Jen] grows bored and forwards [Diane]'s email to all her friends to show what a big slut she is.

Posted by Sean | June 7, 2007 9:49 PM

"[a] linguistic uncanny valley" is already a thing. It's called a Turing test.

Posted by Brodie | June 7, 2007 10:19 PM

Tell Joni Balter to write her own columns!

Posted by Geni | June 8, 2007 7:50 AM

Lemme get this straight:
The guy who was "reporting" about how great the ACLU's medical pot bill was WHILE WORKING AT THE ACLU is now the arbiter of news ethics?

Posted by Hank | June 8, 2007 8:26 AM

@ 15: Hilarious. And sad, because things like that actually happen, and the overall snarkiness of women toward other women is appalling. Unless I'm the one being snarky; then it's clearly justified.

Posted by Aislinn | June 8, 2007 8:44 AM

The first e-mail sounded to me like an attempted poaching. I have no idea how it works in publishing, but if I wanted to snatch a talented whatever from another business, I think I would go about it that way. "Has anything been frustrating you?" "Would you like to talk about it?"

Posted by keshmeshi | June 8, 2007 12:24 PM


Posted by Bill | June 12, 2007 2:40 PM


Posted by Bill | June 12, 2007 2:40 PM

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