The content writing business has exploded in the past few years attracting more in the community and increasing its sphere. The rise in digital technology has created a platform for talented individuals to explore more on this path. Whether monetising their skills full time or just dipping their toes in the water to have a passive source of income.
For many content writers, it started as a hobby or an activity to unwind and get some peace of mind at the end of the day. Which eventually turned into regular work and paychecks.
Content writing is essential everywhere. A few years back I didn’t even know what content meant, and to this very day, it is not a jargon anymore. In this era content writing is not limited to publishing houses, advertising agencies or journalism.
Content marketing is the best way to build a reputation for you or your brand and influence their target audience. In this data-driven digital world, almost every industry needs a content creator to get recognized and shine in the crowd. It is one of the best career paths for the present and seems to be promising in the future. Because Ethical or not but Content marketing is everywhere.
Along with the opportunity of growth, content writing is highly competitive too. To rank one’s content higher in SEO, fulfilling marketing goals, generate more leads, attract more readers and audience, raising TRP, often causes content writers to sideline their ethical responsibility towards their audiences.
What is Ethics?
Oxford Dictionaries defines ethics as “moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity”
Ethics are well-founded measures of right and wrong that advise what we are ought to do and what not to. Usually in terms of rights, obeying law & order, obligations, benefits to society or specific virtues.
I did not but did you know that the word Ethics was derived from the Greek word ‘ethos’, that means ‘character’. Ethics covers how to live a good life, rights and responsibilities of human beings, making decisions on what is good or bad for others.
The concepts of our ethics are procured from:
- A human conscience
- The consequences of actions
- What law requires us to do
- A desire for the best for everyone in each specific situation
One famous way of saying is “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”, Jeremey Bentham.
Ethics are often being confused with values, however, two are different but connected. Ethics are about moral standards and principles of right and wrong.
Meaning of Ethics is not the same for everyone, everyone has their views and beliefs. One that is right for one does not mean the same for another.
Ethics in Content Writing is important… Why?
”Doing the right thing doesn’t automatically bring success. But compromising ethics almost always leads to failure.” said Erika Anderson.
The content represents a content writer or company’s values. It is entirely based on your content, how it made your reader or consumer feel, or what information did they receive.
The main purpose to create content is to get their attention, loyalty and trust. Your audience trusts what you write and ethical writing builds that ground for you. Once your audience gets under the impression that the content isn’t ethical, everything under that brand seems unreliable.
Following ethics in content writing will help increase the credibility of the content writer to make a long term relation with the audience. Usually, after starting to work with professionals you realise that to maintain your integrity you will have to ask questions, turn down offers or define your stand.
The importance of ethics in content writing is not only based on avoiding plagiarism but also avoidance of vulnerabilities, conflict of interest, bias and exclusive language, such as sexist, racist, etc.
It is the responsibility of the writer, to be honest, and transparent to their target audience.
It takes several years of dedication and a labour of love to be recognized as a content writer or creator. And to reach the level of a published writer is remarkable.
Not to mention, the writer goes through a long process of learning and reflection, hours of research and writing before producing anything potential. Why throw all your hard work writing something that is morally incorrect.
Why is the importance of Ethics in Content Writing is in the grey zone?
Everyone tends to have different views and beliefs about ethics, caused by various factors, such as religion, feelings, values, education or cultures. This leads to unstable ways of accumulating, producing and publishing content.
The Code of Ethics is not black and white like textbooks. Often writers find themselves in the dilemma of being in the situation, where every solution on the topic is either ethically right or ethically wrong. It doesn’t matter which side you choose, some harm will be done to an individual or a community. Somewhere someone will always disagree with your thoughts or opinion.
Many writers swear by the Potter Box model to make sure their decisions are ethically correct. Especially, when sharing their perspective on a sensitive issue in this social media age.
One of the common examples of a dilemma in ethical writing is Ghostwriting. When someone writes a piece of content but a different person is credited for the same content, is Ghostwriting. Many content writers believe that there is nothing wrong if a ghostwriter is willing to write for another person at the beginning to kick start their career and pay the bills. Others oppose the idea of not being able to recognize for your own work.
Often CEO’s, Directors or higher officials of a company do not have enough time to write and someone else is hired to do the job for them.
However, the Ethical question arises when a company’s writer, intern or someone on a lower position writes content for someone holding a higher position within the company and never gets attributed for his work.
Again, there are various perspectives of writers as well as of readers that are in the favour and also against the practices of Ghostwriting or sponsored content that is not transparent. Depending on each person’s understanding of ethics. It is difficult to be defined in black and white moreover leaving it in the grey zone.
Lawyers, Physicians, Educational institutes, Business owners, etc, have a code of ethics for their professions but not content writers. That makes me wonder why is there no invariable code for ethical writing? Perhaps because it is still not accepted as a profession as much as it should have been.
Attributes of Ethics in Content Writing
1. Research and Include Reliable Sources
Adding sources of reliable information makes your content strong and increases its credibility and trustworthiness. Researching reliable sources is equally important to writing. It is a labouring task that takes more time than the writing itself. Before adding the information you need to make sure they are authentic and do not come from someone’s fairy tale imagination.
We should also scan whether:
- Is it relevant to our subject?
- Check writer’s credentials, however, it is not always applicable depending on the website it was published on.
- Which website posted or published it?
- Is that a credible website?
- When was content created? Is it still applicable?
- Is it something your audience would want to know?
- Is it viewpoint biased?
It is your obligation to provide a piece of content that needs to be thoroughly researched and contains accurate information. It is critical, but a good practice to focus on relevance and diversity while researching and choosing your sources.
Plagiarism is a term that all writers are familiar with and tries desperately to avoid at all cost (well, at least most of us). Plagiarism is considered academic dishonesty and can hinder the writer’s reputation to constitute copyright violation. It is considered as an ethical offence and can occur in social ridicule or financial punishment.
However, it can occur accidentally too. If there is an idea, a quote, saying, research or thought that you did not come up with but you wish to or required to mention in your content, then it is a crucial step to cite the source.
It is always better to be on the right side of the law and be aligned with good ethical writing policy. This practice has affected several famous people too.
These are just a few famous high profile plagiarism examples:
- The popular author of the Harry Potter series JK Rowling accused that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is plagiarised from a British author Adrian Jacob’s book Willy the Wizard.
- Chris Spence, the former head of Toronto District School Board apologised for plagiarism at multiple occurrences in speech, a passage in his doctoral thesis, an online blog and published articles.
- Former Dean of the University of Alberta’s medical school, Philip Baker used major parts of his speech at the graduation banquet from a well-known address delivered by world-renowned surgeon Atul Gawande.
- In the 2016 speech at the Republican National Convention Melania Trump not only imitated Michelle Obama’s speech from 2008 at the Democratic National Convention but also used some of the exact words.
- Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been accused of plagiarizing a part of his doctoral thesis at Boston University, works were taken from a previous student named Paul Tillich.
It is wise to make sure that the idea has not come out of the unconscious mind that has been taken from another writer’s work. Nevertheless, it is now a lot easier to detect plagiarism before posting one’s content due to the rising of artificial intelligence in the digital world.
3. Check your Grammar & Spellings thoroughly
Faults in the grammar or petty spelling mistakes make the reader lose their interest in the content. For some, it might not seem a big deal but a small error can change the meaning of your message. It also makes the content writer or the content succumbs its credibility.
One classic example, which we all have heard at some point, “A woman, without her man, is nothing” can completely change its meaning by shifting a comma to “A woman, without her, man is nothing”.
Up until a few decades back it was surely not an easy task to proofread everything you write, infinite times to make sure everything is in order before getting it published. We are so privileged to have this humongous selection of tools. That is available at our disposal to make our life easier for almost every writing problem.
4. Fact and truth
A writer should not distort facts, fabricate facts, change facts or mislead the reader. As kindergarten as it sounds, always tell the truth and not a lie.
Fact-checking also backs that you are telling the truth. This is why facts are gathered and interviews are conducted to make sure no stone is left unturned in creative nonfiction writing, such as journalism or writing a biography or a memoir.
For instance, while writing an event some writers believe that minor details can be edited as they are hard to remember and also give them a chance to include their imagination to fill in the missing or forgotten details. Other writers believe that it is not acceptable to fabricate a story and drill into the imagination or add emotional truth that can change the important aspects of the event. As the intention is, to tell the truth, and not lies, or to fabricate, deceive, distort significant details of events.
A content writer can also use some cues when unsure of facts or details for your audience, there are many ways to separate the fact from opinion, like:
“As I recall….”
“As per my perspective…”
“The way I see…”
“Perhaps this is the way it happened…”
“I don’t recall exactly….”
“This is how it looks to me…”
You can also add a disclaimer to ensure that your reader will be aware of you not being 100% certain about significant details. Draw the line between fiction and truth, it’s not a good concoction.
Coming again to the point that the truth is a matter of perspective. What you believe is true for you but not necessarily the same as I believe the truth is. This is where checking the facts plays a crucial role.
5. Be respectful and take responsibility
As a content writer, you should include different viewpoints to make yours stand out. Respect others opinions and beliefs, take them seriously without being biased. It is ethically not correct to publish something for the sole purpose of creating controversy or hurting sentiments.
Consistently aim to treat others with dignity and respect. On Social media and public platforms, more often than we would like trollers and competitors jump in the conversation.
Show your good taste, leaving improper and unethical content out, that is being used in an attempt to boost engagement. Be sensitive towards the changes that could impact someone unfavourably.
Due to the belief that any publicity is good publicity, controversies are used as a tool to create curiosity, to get more audiences abroad and get popular.
Dan Brown’s mystery thriller novel Da Vinci Code is one of the examples, where Brown rewrote some historic events in his novel stating them fact and 99% true and authentic. The idea was borrowed from another controversial novel The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. He received mostly negative reviews but due to the curiosity created, ultimately sold millions of copies of the book and became a bestseller author.
It’s not possible to please everyone, there will always be someone who would disagree with your thoughts. However, doing it on purpose by using disrespectful words or language is not an ethical writing practice, for instance, racism, cus language. On numerous occasions at social media, this practice is being followed widely, without giving the thought to consequences. There have been incidents of suicides and/or depression affecting many lives. Being respectful is not only ethical but a sensible action too.
You will be associated and recognized with your content as well as held accountable for your marketing efforts and standards. Act responsibly.
We are all human, so do you and are known to make mistakes. Providing any damage has been done unintentionally, then take responsibility for your actions and do whatever it takes to amend. Own up to your mistakes, learn from them and avoid repeating in the future.
6. Give Credits and mention sources
Always make sure to give credits for any idea which has been ‘borrowed’. It is not logical to sabotage your work or brand by not giving a cite. All your sources of information, quotes, analytics and data should be properly cited and link to further information as often as you can.
7. Think quality over quantity
Constantly be motivated to aim for quality over quantity. There is already enough competition, your audience will not come to you for how much you have written but for what you have written. Try your best to reach for excellence.
There will surely be clients who are strong-willed for word count, and you would want to please them. After all, you will be paid per word, higher the word count, higher the pay.
However, you can try to guide them and advise them to go with the quality work. If not, make an extra effort to dig a little deeper and give as much information you can. Rather than just increasing and stretching words that add no value to your content. For you to justify and take pride in your work.
8. Be true to your audience and make genuine recommendations
Always remember that you are writing for your audience, to give them a piece of information, to entertain or for any other purpose. Respect your audience who trust your reviews and recommendations about products and services. While there is nothing to monetize your content, in fact, that’s one of the main goals. But sponsorship, affiliate links, etc. should be transparent and honest.
There have been times when the content writer did not even try or touch the product but motivated by various reasons, made further recommendations to readers. Practices like this should be avoided. When the reader does not find the product or service aligned with your reviews and recommendations, then the feeling of breach of trust will arise to take your reader away feeling cheated and scammed. And this is the last thing we would want.
No need to mention that the ultimate goal of content marketing is to boost your numbers. Gaining an audience is a part of it and to be transparent is your obligation towards them. As a content writer, you should aim at a long-term relationship that is built on trust.
Writing with a level of inclusion, respect and acknowledgement of diversity is ethical writing. Consider factors, for instance, Religion, Nationality, ability, class, gender etc, when writing and avoid stereotypes. However, that does not mean hiding the truth or presenting only half of it, such as in journalism.
If there is something about any subject or brand that makes you even slightly uncomfortable for any reason, don’t go any further. Ethics in content writing are not something as complex as rocket science. Trusting your gut and conscience is the easiest way to go. That is where most right and wrong gets filtered. When the question comes up in your mind while approaching a topic, it’s best to answer ‘why’ before going ahead. A writer may or may not be smart enough to always know the solutions but always curious enough to look high and low.
I am not here to tell you what to follow, what not to, being an adult, we know what is right and what is wrong. There is no orderly system about ethics in content writing and the responsibility falls on an individual. The problem is many of these ethically comparative practices have become standard. When one writer puts the foot down and rejects an offer, there is always someone else to accept.
I believe there will always be another solution to earn without having to sacrifice your integrity. It is entirely up to us to ask the question before taking up on an offer that doesn’t agree with our ethical writing standard and put your credibility on the line.
These days it is incredibly difficult to gain your audience trust. Thus, it is best for content writers and brands to follow best practices and remain honest and transparent in their marketing strategies, however, that’s not always the case.