I was on a LinkedIn group forum earlier today in which someone posted this question:
“Am I totally insane or has ethical behavior been thrown out the window?”
The author of this question was referring to ads and service providers seeking freelance writers to write college essays for pay. This sort of loosely defined “ghost writing” is becoming an increasing trend even on sites like Elance and iFreelance.com.
These sites, popular job boards and Craigslist are inundated with essay writing offers- there are even entire essay writing services who are now recruiting freelancers for their stables. Though the answers from other group members were on-point, agreeing that doing this sort of work is unethical (provided that we can agree on such a subjective thing), it prompted me to think about this issue more deeply and why it seems to be on the rise.
If we dig a little deeper, I think the problem lies with our current educational system and its “memorization and regurgitation” approach to teaching. The University system is no longer about inspiring life-long learners or teaching people how to think for themselves but rather about about dollars in pockets and butts in seats. Add to this, students who have been told, almost mantra-like, “College is a must- a BA is the minimum. Just go to college, you don’t have to know what you’re majoring in,” and you have schools filled with kids just trying to get by to get out and teachers trying to preserve tenure.
This behavior has created a population where the goal is the piece a paper (diploma) to enter the workforce with instead of education and exposure to new experiences and perspectives. A bachelors degree is the new high school diploma and the institutions are treating it as such. Higher education shouldn’t mirror the public school system where we just push them through the mill. Priorities are in the wrong place and it starts in our public schools. There are elementary and middle schools now, that do not flunk anyone – everyone is promoted. It’s what “No Child Left Behind” left us with- a legacy of idiocy courtesy of the example George W. Bush gave us all — that anyone with the right connections can achieve untold heights, regardless of their knowledge.
It’s all about numbers and quotas and budgets. This is what we are teaching our youth. Add to this all of the marketing, blogging and “so-called reporting” that churn out ignorant, unsubstantiated and insipid content and what our society ends up teaching our young people is that knowledge and truth do not matter: only money, numbers, connections and getting through the required hoops to get what you want with the least amount of energy expended.
But then again, how can we expect anymore of our kids? What messages do we send them in terms of ethics when politicians, religious leaders and reporters who have done things like lied about their educational backgrounds, their whereabouts, their sexuality, their affairs, affiliations and their sources (some even making up quotes) all still have careers and are “forgiven” by just saying, “Oops, my bad.” We are not only reinforcing this type of behavior, we’re cultivating it. Ours is now a culture of anything goes as long as you get what you want.
As far as those who take on these jobs, it is without a doubt, unethical but I see writers everyday that are so desperate to hang onto making their living from writing that they are willing to push their ethical line further and further to survive and get paid. (Especially when it can be months before checks are received from more traditional outlets and with more print outlets folding every day.)
It seems as though we are seeing the disintegration of a once well-respected career. That of the writer. Instead of paying a decent fee for quality work, content mills and web sites offer a pittance for sub-par work (which BTW- is the only way you can come out ahead working for the mills. If you actually spent the time necessary to do the proper research and formulate a thoughtful well-rounded piece, it wouldn’t be worth your time to write it.) While it’s been a long-held tradition to intern or write for free to amass clips to establish your career in writing, with the advent of blogging everybody (and their brother) thinks they are a writer (and they’re willing to do it for free just to feel like one.)
Andy Warhol was right about those 15 minutes and now every gets and thinks they deserve their 15 minutes of fame in the digital age’s pseudo-reality world. As a published writer who has spent a great deal of her life honing a craft, I can understand why, after banging your head against the wall in this market, many may decide that the only choices they are left with are to give up the dream and go get a job as a barista or a courtesy clerk at Target (because to paraphrase Stephen King, let’s face it, as writers what else are we qualified for?) or supplement your writing income by diversifying. How you choose to diversify is the real question. Many will choose the easy money with these well-paying essay gigs. For these folks the answer is a no-brainer.
Their justification may even be, “The only person they (the person buying the essay) are hurting is themselves.” The problem with that argument is this:
When we’re already seeing a rapid decline in intelligent debate and content in the world due to the sheer volumes of misinformation around every corner on our information super-highways, those who do take these jobs are not only enabling someone in their personal journey to idiocracy, they are also contributing to the overall decline of western civilization.
Really, whether you agree with all of my connections in this piece or not, my main point is this– each and every choice you make as a writer impacts not only you, the outlets you write for and your business but those of your peers and your world as a whole.
We all know things are tough out there but keep your wits about you folks. If we stand strong and stick to our principles we can effect a change. It only takes turning down these so-called jobs to change the industry back to a “fair pay for credible work” market. As long as we are willing to accept little to nothing for our work (or sub-standard jobs in general) that’s what market will dictate.
Maybe if we all, no matter what our vocation, just remembered to care about what it is we do and what we put into the world, we could stop these kinds of issues before they started or at the very least reverse the trends.
That is why it is so imperative for us all to remain present in making decisions about who we work for and what work we do and not just blindly go where there’s money. I spent a bit of time trying to understand why both the person hiring someone to write their essay and the person accepting the job might do so (less about judgment and more about understanding) but I still believe that the most important part of accepting or turning down any assignment is to carefully consider any job and it’s impact not only on your personal life philosophies (i.e. whether you can feel OK writing for the KKK’s newsletter) but the effect your decisions can have on our industry and the world at large. If we stretch the line so thin that doing this type of work is accepted practice within our industry, there really will be nothing left of the fabric of writing ethics and journalistic integrity and we will have lost what little respect folks still have for the work we do.
For further discussion on this topic, check out Allena Tapia’s blog on About.com.
Want some ethical ideas for new roads to revenue for writers?