In one of my previous articles I explored the topic of journalists republishing press releases without proper attribution and if doing this was considered an unethical practice in the industry. My career as a digital marketer has progressed in recent months, and a similar discussion that I’ve recently had with my peers includes ghostwriting and whether or not ghostwriting is unethical.

What is ghostwriting?

Unlike many forms of writing where the original author is attributed for their work, a ghostwriter is hired to create literary or journalist works, texts and speeches that another person is then credited for. While it isn’t an illegal practice, some may question if ghostwriting is unethical as the credited author didn’t create their content themselves.

Types of ghostwriting

There are a few different kinds of ghostwriting, but it generally comes in a few different flavors:

  • Creating anonymous sales letters where an employer hires a ghostwriter to sell their products;
  • Taking someone’s ideas and words to help produce polished and well-written content, typically as a book or article, or revising a rough draft that they created;
  • Taking someone’s ideas and creating written content. A ghostwriter might gather all of the information for the content and a client approves a final draft to be published;
  • And creating the entirety of the content without any involvement from the client other than the final approval.

Debate on if ghostwriting is unethical

The topic of ghostwriting isn’t strictly black or white; celebrities, politicians, CEO’s and even presidents of countries hire ghostwriters to produce their articles, emails and speeches. As a former journalist, the idea of writing an entire article and having it attributed to someone else goes against my ethical code. However, not everyone has the ability to write quality content.

If a client needs help smoothing the rough edges in a piece they’ve been working on, or they have great ideas and are involved throughout the entire creation process, it doesn’t seem to be as significant of an ethical breach. From my perspective, as long as the piece is representative of the client’s own ideas and has been edited to reflect this, I don’t consider the practice of ghostwriting to be unethical.

Transparency and trust

As a reader, it’s typically assumed the source of the material is the author. If the reader learns that this isn’t true, it can harm a person or organization’s reputation due to lack of transparency and trust. Again, as long as the content is reflective of a person or organization’s own ideas, this might not seem to be as big of an issue.

While it isn’t blatantly advertised, it’s common knowledge that presidents and CEO’s hire ghostwriters to write their speeches and the public doesn’t seem to have qualms with this practice. Journalists and authors have editors review and revise their work and in the case of CEO’s and presidents, ghostwriters can act as editors to help shape their ideas into polished content.

There’s no decisive answer

To answer the question of if ghostwriting is unethical or not, there’s no clear cut answer. While professional organizations have set ethical codes, the personal ethics of individuals will always be different and even conflict with one another. For me personally, ghostwriting is ethical if a ghostwriter acts as an editor, or content clearly reflects a client’s thoughts and ideas. I don’t believe it’s ethical to hand over attribution to a client whose only involvement was approving the content in question, but that stance resonates with individuals differently based on varying ethical codes.