The New York Times Is Too Harsh on Freelancer Ethics Violations

You may remember reading in this space about Mike Albo, a New York Times freelancer who was suspended from writing his column after I reported on a lavish, all-expenses-paid junket he and several other journalists accepted. In the weeks since then, numerous people have commented on how I "got Mike Albo fired." Sometimes this is said in accusation, sometimes in congratulation.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% Either way, it always makes me uncomfortable, even though my report was accurate and, I would argue, newsworthy. This week's public editor column in the Times helped me to understand why.

The public editor, Clark Hoyt, examined the cases of Albo and two other freelance contributors the paper stopped using after learning of free trips they'd either taken or solicited. All three writers say they didn't understand how the paper's elaborate ethics rules applied to their situations, and would have behaved differently if they'd known. Hoyt concludes that the Times is right to maintain and enforce its strict policies but needs to engage in "constant communication with freelancers over every assignment about the paper's expectations."

Make Room for Honest Mistakes

This sounds like a good solution, but in practice it won't work. There are just too many freelancers, too few editors and too little time for the conversations Hoyt envisions -- less time than ever now, thanks to recent cutbacks that have thinned the paper's staff. As it happens, I have freelanced for the Times. Getting my story published involved only the briefest of discussions with my assigning editor, and if I signed off on any ethics guidelines, I don't remember it. I'm not knocking anyone. That's what it's like putting out a daily newspaper on deadline.

And that's why, in addition to better communication, the Times also needs a measure of compassion. Honest mistakes happen, and they shouldn't be treated like intentional transgressions. Repeat offenders deserve to be dealt with harshly, but first-timers -- especially those who aren't really journalists, like two of the three people Hoyt discusses -- are always going to need the occasional mulligan. They should be given such slack.
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