We live in a world of dueling realities today, when it comes to media. If you’re trying to do freelance journalism, your job just got a whole lot harder. Even harder than it is for staff writers at newspapers.
Once, the Fourth Estate — the ‘mainstream media’ — was a deeply trusted organ considered vital to our democracy. Now, after four years of being told by the leader of the free world that the media is lying to the American public, that trust is at an all-time low.
As I write this, we stand in the unprecedented situation of both major U.S. presidential candidates claiming they won the election. Social-media outlets are tagging the 45th president’s posts with warnings that they contain falsehoods.
NOT going to talk politics in this post. Just saying, this is the world writers live in now.
What I want you to think about is this:
In a world of ‘FAKE NEWS’ and massive distrust, how can you get an editor to believe in and publish your article?
After all, editors know staff writers better, and trust them more vs. the writers chasing freelance journalism assignments. How will you win them over?
Today, the reputation of every news organization is on the line, with every story. Fears of being accused of printing falsehoods are haunting every editorial desk.
If you’re a freelance journalist pitching a story to a magazine, that affects your odds of finding an editor willing to take a chance on you.
The challenges for newbies
If you’re a self-taught blogger who’s hoping to get into writing for magazines, you’ll need to get up to speed on how freelance journalism is different from opinion writing.
To help you, I’ve put together a guide to the basics you’ll need to succeed as a freelance journalist, as we head into 2021.
Because if you don’t want to end up trolled, shamed, banned, or the subject of a lawsuit, getting the story right has never been more important.
It can feel scary out there — but I’ve been a reporter for 20+ years, and have never gotten into trouble yet. (I’ve come close, though. Details below.)
Below is my guide to what’s happened to the news since 2016, and a primer on the fundamentals of freelance journalism you need to know to stay out of trouble and get your stories out there, as a freelance journalist today.
Media literacy 101
After this election season, here’s hoping media literacy becomes a mandatory high-school course. Because it’s clear many people are confused about whether what something they see online is made up or not.
Misleading and flat-out false information is flying around our social media channels fast as you can click the ‘share’ button — over half of Americans report they’ve shared lies. And most say they only figured out they spread falsehoods after they shared them.
If you want to pursue freelance journalism and writing for a living, begin by not adding to the problem of misinformation. This rubric should help.
The information is most likely legit if it’s from a media outlet that:
- Has been in operation 50-100 years or more
- Is an emerging media outlet whose mission and backers you have checked into (thinking of ProPublica or Axios here)
- Winner of many journalism awards, especially Pulitzers
- Stories have expert quotes, research sources are cited
- Byline you recognize as someone with a reputation for fairness and accuracy
- There is a gatekeeper, an editor or fact-checker that reviews work prior to publication
The information should be viewed with more suspicion if it:
- Sources are anonymous or unidentified
- It’s being shared around social media, and you can’t tell who the original author is
- Is from an unfamiliar source whose reputation or point of view you don’t know
- Is an opinion that lacks attribution of facts
- Alleges things are happening without evidence
- States things that contradict the realities you observe
We all have an obligation to be careful about what we share, and think about whether it’s likely untrue before spreading it around.
In freelance journalism, writers should be in the vanguard of people who think twice before sharing in social media! Our democracy will be better off if we all make the effort, and freelance journalism will be easier to accomplish, too.
You can also use the criteria above to evaluate the media outlets you choose to pitch. (More below on the problem of discovering a platform isn’t what you thought.)
Why there is no ‘fake news’
It’s a phrase you’ve heard a lot, in recent years. It’s also what’s called an oxymoron, or a phrase that contradicts itself. There is no such thing as ‘fake news.’ Fake means the opposite of news.
News is real, actual, emerging facts. Real things that are happening in the real world. That can’t be fake. If it’s fake, it’s misinformation or flat-out lies.
In reality, all actual news outlets inhabit the same world: One where they live in terror of misstating something, getting sued, and going out of business.
To sum up, here’s the big thing you need to know:
Major media outlets are not playing fast and loose with the facts. There’s too much at stake for them, especially when it comes to freelance journalism.
They’re also making sure they have permission, where needed, to air videos and other media they want to show you.
Because mistakes on facts and permissions pose an existential threat to the continued existence of that news organization. They’re a life-and-death matter, in journalism.
Let’s look at a couple recent examples, to see how severe the backlash is for being wrong in news.
Permission and the death of Gawker
Remember Gawker? It was a freewheeling celebrity gossip site. This popular site was founded in 2003, the Internet’s early days, and was frequently supported by freelance journalism.
It thrived, and grew, and spawned a whole media empire. Then one day, Gawker ran a sex tape featuring the wrestler known as Hulk Hogan and a partner, without their permission.
Gawker had been sued before and lost, but had the resources to keep going. This one got Gawker sued off the face of the Earth. Hogan won a $140 million judgment against Gawker’s owners.
Lacking $140 million, Gawker media declared bankruptcy. Its assets were sold for $130 million to another online company, Univision. Other Gawker-owned sites, including Lifehacker and Gizmodo, live on.
But Gawker was shut down forever in August 2016, its brand considered ‘too toxic’ to be viable, by the new owners.
It’s important to note that this tape was not fake or altered. It was real. But the site was extinguished because it lacked permission to air the tape.
Imagine the problems when stories get facts wrong. OK, don’t imagine it — just read on.
The case of the missing laptop
When publications get it wrong, or discover a reporter may have made something up, it’s a massive reputation hit, at the least. At worst, they can get sued and go bust.
It appears we have a case like this unfolding right now — the case of the tabloid New York Post and its stories about a purported Hunter Biden laptop.
Information on this laptop allegedly reveals the younger Biden introduced his father to a Ukrainian businessman at a corrupt company, implying that the President-Elect was involved in something illegal.
There are many fascinating aspects to this story, which will no doubt be studied at journalism schools for years to come. The ones to pay attention to as a freelance journalist are these:
- The laptop which was supposed to provide proof of these allegations mysteriously went missing.
- The repairman who supposedly copied the Biden laptop’s emails to a hard drive for someone he claimed was Hunter Biden later contradicted his story.
- It was revealed that the story began with a lead from alt-right Breitbart News exec and former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
- A former Fox News pundit-show producer co-wrote some of the pieces.
- The Wall Street Journal was offered the story first, the New York Times later reported, and passed after it became clear the story had sourcing problems.
- No mainstream news media outlet picked up and ran any articles similar to the Post story or based on its reporting. Instead, many stories ran that investigated and debunked its sourcing.
That a story like this made it into the Post and has now been widely discredited makes it harder for every freelance writer trying to pitch a big, investigative story.
Be ready to show your work and document everything you do, as you gather facts.
You may have read that conspiracy theorists think this is a tale of ‘censorship,’ of the mainstream media suppressing an important story because they don’t like where it leads. But it isn’t.
It’s a story of most of the media performing its sacred Fourth Estate duty as a gatekeeper, and not publishing a story that was dubiously sourced. A story that might lead them to get sued, because it turns out to be impossible to verify. And exposes them to a lawsuit.
Which is where the Post stands now. The Bidens seem to have a pretty open-and-shut libel case against the newspaper, barring the emergence of new evidence that would make the story veriable and true.
It only remains to be seen whether the Biden family decides to spend time and energy on lawyers and putting the paper out of business, or whether to focus on running the country. My money’s on the latter.
But one thing’s for sure: the editor who greenlit these stories put that paper at risk.
You don’t ever want to be in this situation, with a story you wrote. Check your facts and keep your documentation.
My own near-death experience
I was a staff reporter at two publications, for a total of 12 years. I did not wake up every morning and think:
“Hey, let’s write whatever I feel today, without confirming sources to verify my facts. Who cares! I have an agenda I want to get across, and if I have to fudge facts a bit, I will.”
Like every reporter ever, I lived in terror of being accused of having a hidden agenda, getting it wrong, getting fired, and being the person whose error put my paper out of business.
If you’re wondering why the topic of accuracy and fairness in reporting is one I’m passionate about, it’s because I almost became the focus of a lawsuit. It happened when I was a staffer at the business journal in Seattle.
I was working on a story that had a long reporting timeframe. Several months.
Early on in the reporting, I promised an executive at the company who was the subject of what was shaping up to be an unflattering article that I would fact-check with them once I had finished all my interviews. I pledged to make sure they had a chance to respond to everything I heard from other sources I talked to after my core interview with them.
Then, time went by. And I forgot about this promise.
Didn’t double-check through my notes before filing. Didn’t see the note.
When they called the paper in a rage, I saw my professional life flash before my eyes.
They had a basis for a lawsuit. They had received a promise, and did not receive their promised chance to have all their counter-arguments in the story. As a result, needed perspective and balance were missing from the story.
Which is nearly as good as flat-out telling a lie.
The only reason that paper is still around and I still have a journalism career is that the execs at this company had a close relationship with the publisher. And he was able to talk them off the ledge about suing.
He assured them they’d be covered again and we’d make sure the other side of their story appeared in the publication as well.
It was a close call I never forgot. And the risk of a career-ender should never be far from your mind, any time you are writing editorial, for any publication, anywhere.
It doesn’t have to be a big-time, acclaimed news organization. It could be a small city magazine, a trade publication for dentists, anything anywhere.
Check your facts, get the other side, and make sure you have permission or the documentation you need to support everything you write.
Detecting the fake news media
As we’ve seen, there are no ‘fake news’ stories. But there are fake news outlets that in fact have a strong, often fringe point of view they try to dress up with a journalistic feel.
Places that are less about balanced reporting and speaking truth to power, and more fulfilling a leader’s dream of having their own Pravda-like, party-line echo chamber.
And in some cases, they’re actively looking to dupe freelance journalists into writing for them.
A few prominent examples of rising faux news organizations:
- The Epoch Times — have you seen their videos all over YouTube? They turn out to be a Falun Gong sponsored, anti-Communist, pro-Trump organization.
- Conspiracy-theory purveyor One America News, widely noted in recent weeks for spreading untruths.
- Newsmax is another pro-Trump organization. It’s been around since the ’90s, but recently grew with its willingness to repeat unproven voter-fraud presidential-election claims.
Not saying you shouldn’t write for these places if you want, and if you agree with their point of view. Just understand that some vetting is required these days, when you encounter a ‘news’ organization you don’t know, to make sure what you’d write for them would be classified as journalism.
One final example: Just a couple of months ago, it came to light that some veteran journalists were suckered into writing well-paid articles for PeaceData. This innocuous-sounding ‘news’ source turned out to be a Russian disinformation scheme.
After signing on, freelance journalists were asked to rewrite their articles to fit a Russian propaganda agenda.
Thing to know: There’s no law requiring organizations with the word ‘news’ or other newspaper-sounding phrases in their name to be actual news organizations. Could be anything.
How’d I find all this out about the bogus ‘news’ sites, by the way?
Research. You should do it, too.
Always research prospects and find out who they are before you pitch.
Feel free to pop ‘What is [site name] or ‘Who is Behind [site name]‘ or similar phrases into your search engine of choice.
It’s a sure bet that if a publication or website is not what they seem, you’ll find stories about it.
A toolkit for making news
If you’ve been writing whatever you feel on your own blog, without documenting if what you’ve said is actually true… hopefully, you’ve just learned that freelance journalism operates differently.
In general, your opinion will not be part of the stories you write, as a freelance journalist. Instead, you’ll focus on obtaining facts from knowledgeable, credible experts. People who aren’t you.
To nail down a reported story, you’ll need that who-what-when-where-why basic info. You will be a fact-seeking missile. When did it happen, why, to whom, how many, where, what did it feel, smell, taste like.
You’ll get that info from experts in your topic to talk to you (or you’ll read their book), and you will cite their ideas. Not sure who an expert is? Learn about reliable places to find experts to quote.
Along with the experts, you will often get the perspectives of the ‘people on the street’ who are affected by this development. The person who had to say goodbye to grandma on the phone because COVID. For instance.
You will also research facts — medical studies, polls, and the like. Again, from reputable sources, such as leading organizations, published authors, and government agencies.
Tips that keep new reporters out of trouble
Journalists abide by a set of rules, in bringing you the news. There’s a lot to know, but a few quick tips:
- More than one source confirms each fact. This makes sure that you’re not falling for some crackpot’s B.S. line.
- Get multiple points of view in the story. You want balanced reporting that sees all sides of an issue.
- Friends and family cannot be sources. Unless your editor OK’s it. But in general, they pose a conflict of interest for you, as you like them and can’t be impartial about what they say.
- Don’t ever pay sources. This taints the information they give you.
- Don’t accept pay for links in your story. There is widespread effort by businesses who want mentions in major online publications to simply pay journalists for a link, these days. Great way to get banned from a site and ruin your reputation. Just say no.
- Don’t show your article draft to sources prior to publication. That’s a journalism no-no.
- Don’t re-quote others’ reporting. That’s lazy journalism. Go find the original research and quote it directly. Re-interview that expert and get your own quote.
- Consider the source. Does the source you’re talking to have a strong point of view or agenda? That will need to be disclosed, and likely a different viewpoint also included.
- Ask for documentation. How does your source know what they know? Ask to see source materials.
- Worried about something? Ask your editor, anytime a situation gives you even a vague ‘icky’ feeling.
- Keep your word. If you promised a source something, you’ll have to deliver. Mostly, don’t make promises.
In general, don’t lie or make stuff up. Should be obvious, but it’s happened. And when it does, it’s a career-ender.
Resources to know
Now that you know more about the challenges you face as a reporter today in convincing editors and the public your article contains truths, you may be wondering how to know what’s real.
There are nonpartisan, bipartisan, and journalist-led websites that can help. Here are a few:
- Politifact provides a fact-checking truth meter for political tropes circulating in social media. The nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies runs this one, along with PunditFact.
- Factcheck.org is brought to you by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
- Newsguard uses a browser app to rate the accuracy of news sites you visit. Run by journalists.
- Snopes is a longtime, wide-ranging B.S.-meter that you’re probably familiar with.
- Here’s a training handbook from UNESCO for teaching journalists to detect falsehoods.
It’s worth a moment to run whatever rumor you’re hearing through one or more of these fact-checkers, or to check out the accuracy rating of the news site you’ve chosen, before you swallow whole whatever they’re putting out.
Freelance journalism needs to thrive
We’ve never needed the free press, and people who are willing to dig and uncover wrongdoing and speak truth to power more than we do right now. And it can’t all be done by writers on staff.
Freelance journalism is essential to bringing important stories to light. And many freelance writers I know want to do investigative work and expose wrongdoing. Get your truth meter calibrated, and then go for it!
I hope these resources and background on navigating the current news climate helps you to get the stories you report out to a wide audience.
What recent challenges have you encountered, as a freelance journalist? Let’s discuss in the comments.