Magazine article Editor & Publisher

A Matter of Principles: Should Freelance Reporters Be Held to the Same Journalistic Standards as Full-Timers?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

A Matter of Principles: Should Freelance Reporters Be Held to the Same Journalistic Standards as Full-Timers?

Article excerpt

When a freelance reporter in New Jersey interjected herself into the public debate at a meeting she was covering this past June, the bosses at the weekly newspaper she was representing pulled her off the beat.

Mary Ellen Vichiconti's decision to speak up at the Vernon, N.J., township council meeting June 10 sparked a national journalism debate: Is it fair to hold inexperienced freelancers to the same vigorous standards demanded of full-time journalists?

With reporters schooled in civic journalism often participating rather than just observing, where is the line?

Is expressing an opinion at a public meeting, as Vichiconti did, any different than weighing in on social media via a snarky tweet? The former is rare, which is why Vichiconti drew such attention, while the latter is common and usually does not get anyone in trouble.

Vichiconti, in an interview, said she did not realize engaging the council president from the public podium would put an end to her job as a $35-per-story freelance correspondent for the AIM Vernon weekly in Sussex, N.J.

Such an explanation, from a veteran reporter, would be difficult to accept.

But Vichiconti, by her account, had no journalism experience before getting picked by her hometown newspaper in March to cover municipal council meetings and other light fare.

Vichiconti, 60, described herself as a part-time special education teacher with an interest in writing and local news and looking to supplement her income. AIM Vernon gave her the beat even though she ran for the council in 2008, 2009 and 2011 and regularly spoke out on issues.

About 30 minutes into the June 10 meeting, Vichiconti left the reporter's table and politely, but firmly, disputed the council president's comments on the mayor's authority under the Faulkner Act.

She spoke for about a minute, including a brief exchange with the official. Covering the meeting for the New Jersey Herald, I heard some grumbling in the audience at that moment. Another resident, identifying herself as a former reporter, went to the podium and said she had never seen a reporter do what Vichiconti did.

Several days later, Vichiconti told me her editor had ended her freelance role, which included a $25 per photo published agreement. Her story on the meeting was never published. …

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