What to pay and where to code your 2024 sensitivity budget expenditures
It’s the time of year when many newsrooms are putting the final touches on their budgets for next year. You might be thinking “I’VE TOTALLY MISSED THE OPPORTUNITY FOR PAYING SENSITIVITY READERS in 2024!” But fear not, kind journalists, you probably already have the budget you need to experiment with a few sensitivity readers this year.
One of the best ways to subtly shift any workplace culture is to experiment sustainably with the resources you already have. After all, making the argument for more budget padding or a new budget code is harder than experimenting with what you’ve already been given and workflows that you have already established. Why not do a little something new with your freelance budget, and make your reporting more inclusive in the process?
Where sensitivity work lives in your budget
Most newsrooms have a high level of proficiency with freelancers, so contract language and payment mechanisms are already in place, and an annual budget and rate sheet already exist. And it is already clear who is responsible for requesting and approving freelance contracts. For these reasons, freelancing out sensitivity work is probably the easiest way to get started with working with sensitivity professionals. It’s easy to convey both the need and scope of a sensitivity edit or review, especially if it is described as analogous to a freelance editor or fact-checker, and a by-the-word or by-the-hour rate follows suit.
Because this workflow is so familiar — contract a sensitivity editor, send a draft with a deadline, review and incorporate suggested changes, copyedit, publish — it is easy incorporate sensitivity freelancers for appropriate projects when our feelers suggest we might be in danger of missing the mark or running aground. As contracting freelancers is relatively easy and certainly in the wheelhouse of most editors, a freelance approach to sensitivity work makes it feasible to build relationships with a stable of sensitivity readers, each with unique identity or issue expertise, who can be tapped individually by a regional or national newsroom as they engage different communities in their reporting.
The main risk with freelancing sensitivity work is that it may encourage a too little too late “copyediting but for identity” approach, one that simply won’t work for feature or series reporting that centers one or more marginalized communities. If a lengthy, problematic narrative has been developed after months of interviewing sources that are conflicted or biased, no amount of sensitivity editing will save it from landing poorly.
Sensitivity readers might take a number of approaches to protect themselves from participating in lose-lose situations such as these: a quick conversation with a writer or editor to discuss the reporting philosophy and framing of a story before signing a contract, insisting on a preview or nut graph before signing, a “walk away” or “express right to terminate” clause in the contract, refusing a by-line or requesting anonymity, or even offering an NDA (though as of this writing, the author hasn’t seen or heard of an NDA used to protect the reputation of a sensitivity professional). If you’ve produced something that sensitivity readers are walking away from, take heed.
That delightful hourly catchall, “consulting” usually rankles anyone responsible for controlling costs or justifying expenses, but it’s also the vehicle that most organizations use for paying external experts to make things better.
Since so often consulting is what we are actually asking for from sensitivity professionals, this can be a smart approach to paying for the work of someone who’s advice extends beyond strict wordsmithing. If you’re looking to pay hourly, and if you’re hoping for meaningful conversations, multiple references or resources conveyed, changes to your editorial process or sourcing, or other bespoke efforts that extend beyond the written or spoken word for more than a week or two, then you’re likely looking for a sensitivity consultant.
A caution for those who go this route: Do not conflate sensitivity consulting on an editorial project with DEI consulting to address harm or bias in your workplace — a sensitivity professional’s responsibility for minimizing harm and exclusion is to the audience of editorial content, not to the people who make it. As with any consultant, establish a cap of hours, money, or both at the outset of a project, and include exhaustive lists of the arenas and timeframe in which the work will occur, primary points of contact, and a cadence and medium for communication about the project (see below).
An honorarium is something that most often comes to mind when compensating speakers, and usually involves a flat fee for services performed, particularly when those services were performed voluntarily or where fee-for-service is paid for vaguely defined deliverables. It is perhaps best to think about this as how to pay for a favor, and if papered, looks like an email exchange or most formally as an MOU. The weaknesses and strengths of using honorarium to pay for sensitivity work are one-for-one: You can pay almost anyone almost anything, whether that’s generously or exploitatively, and both parties are free to walk away at any time.
For reasons related to staff retention, integrity, and the marginalizing harm that media has done to both journalists and multiple publics, sensitivity work warrants further professionalization, not undercompensation. Therefore, use honorarium only to generously compensate sensitivity professionals for informal uses of their time or attention, where a word or hourly rate doesn’t apply — a phone call for advice as you are developing a story, providing a missing perspective during a 90-minute pitch session, a look-through of stock photography for a marketing campaign.
Other random budget buckets
Whether you are casting about looking for ways to spend down surplus budget (yeah right!), or are trying to stealthily underspend in odd places in hopes of scraping enough together for a pet project, creative budgeting is, sadly, a thing. By carefully managing the scope or arena in which sensitivity work takes place, you may be able to justify paying for it under some rather niche budget codes.
Sensitivity work that is restricted to the promotion, marketing, social media, newsletter, or other outreach materials of an editorial effort might find a home in a marketing budget. A bilingual translator may be available to flag issues in an article draft before and during translation, and roll hours together in an invoice for translation services. If you’re digitally publishing something that features or serves a blind or visually impaired communities, D/deaf or hard of hearing audiences, or other disability communities, accessibility consultants are often sufficiently skilled to review the digital accessibility of content as well as the inclusiveness of the content itself, and can assist with appropriate keywording and titling. Digital access and disability inclusion can fly under a number of budget codes: accessibility, transcription, web development, SEO.
Lastly a special consideration for nonprofit newsrooms may be to take a careful look at restricted funding — many media funders have access and inclusion imperatives and are all too happy to approve small adjustments to awarded funds (or reasonable requests for additional funding) to support the involvement of a sensitivity professional on a funded project.
Sensitivity work as defined here is typically done by an individual professional. However, the truth is that most of the intent and practice behind sensitivity work is a matter of course for many outstanding newsrooms and organizations with expertise in reporting on, with, and for marginalized communities, organizations whose entire newsroom is staffed and run to create just, inclusive reporting.
Some, like El Tímpano, provide paid support to other newsrooms and organizations looking to do right by a particular community (in El Tímpano’s case, Latino immigrants). Still more can be accomplished through collaborative journalism, integrating the strengths of multiple (ideally representative) newsrooms to serve a greater vision of inclusive journalism. Though it is beyond the scope of this article (and the sensitivity toolkit under development), journalism collaboratives that leverage the identity- and reporting expertise of multiple outlets have generated truly incredible things.
A survey administered to Editorial Freelance Association members in April 2020 was used to generate the association’s editorial rate sheet, which now includes a rate for sensitivity/authenticity reads of $31-$35/hr or one to two cents per word. This rate relies on a fairly narrow if traditional definition of sensitivity work, and like many of the median rates reported, is less than what most experienced editors charge in major media markets. As with anything, you get what you pay for, and expertise should be rewarded.
If your newsroom is looking for a sensitivity consultant who is an experienced co-identifying journalist, with a history of reporting with and about an identity community, expect to pay more than $100/hr. If you’re looking for a co-identifying copyeditor to provide a gut check on a semi-weekly basis for regular digital beat coverage, one to two cents per word invoiced monthly might be more appropriate.
Be prepared to pay more for work that is harder, faster, or requires more skill, such as:
- Work done on a rush or an on demand basis
- Multiple draft revisions or editorial co-working
- Providing process guidance or coaching
- A high risk of personal psychological harm (e.g. violence, graphic images)
- Additional research, supporting documentation, bibliography
- Additional sourcing
- Policy or context analysis (e.g. accounting for recent legislation)
- Content review across multiple channels (YouTube, digital, social media)
- Content review across multiple formats (images, text, audio, live event)
Before a contract is signed
As with any working relationship, there are things you may want to discuss with a sensitivity reader before you have them under contract, in addition to any typical freelancer 101 type stuff. For smaller projects, there’s less to discuss, but for longer efforts that require a robust working relationship with a sensitivity consultant or freelancer, you’ll want to read deeper down this list and review what you can before sending or signing a contract.
- Identity scope: What identities or experiences are represented in the work that you are hoping your sensitivity professional has lived and professional experience with?
- Format: How many formats is the finished work using, and which ones do you want them to review? Stock photography, titles, search terms, copy, audio, video, TikTok?
- Feedback: Comments and markups in a draft, or a list of pointers in an email? Is a conversation sufficient, or is more formal feedback, supported by citations or related articles being requested?
- Boundaries + Triggers: Is there anything your sensitivity reader is particularly averse to reviewing? Are there scary, violent, graphic, or incredibly sad vignettes in the work that you might want to warn your sensitivity reader about before proceeding?
- Duration: How long will the contract be open, when is feedback due, and is there a pacing expectation for feedback?
- Phases of work: Is this a single draft read, an on-demand consulting gig in Slack? Are you looking for support throughout inception, research, sourcing, production, promotion, and moderation? Or is this a single accountability step for a small deliverable?
- Pay structure: Hourly, by the word or phase of work, or for a flat fee? Is a kill fee available?
- Commitment: Can one or both parties walk away before a particular date?
- Recognition: Will there be recognition for the involvement of the sensitivity reader (and if so, what language will be used)? Is anonymity preferred by either party? Will their contributions be sufficient to warrant a by-line (keep reading!)
- Communication: Is there an expectation that the sensitivity professional is “on-demand”, and if so, are there agreed upon working hours or days? How will you be in touch?
- Audience: What do you know about your audience or your target audience? Do you need help defining the audience and their needs? Have you (or your outlet) harmed your target audiences in the past in any way?
- Distribution: Do you know where or how to share your content so that it will reach your target audience, or are you looking for input? Are there linguistic, technological, or socioeconomic barriers that you’re not considering?
After a project is finished
Besides providing prompt payment, it’s a good idea to follow up with your sensitivity professional as the project goes live and is released in the world. Share artifacts or insights about how the project landed with your audiences and constituencies, mention any process changes that resulted from your collaboration, and of course thank them for their time. Always leave the door open for any direct feedback, and for an added layer of accountability, provide the contact information for your superior or a link to an anonymized feedback pathway for freelancers if one exists at your organization. Be honest and open about the opportunity for future work, and be sure to ask permission if you’d like to refer them to other newsrooms or editors.
A note about uncompensated work
There may be a lot of sensitivity work already happening in your workplace. That’s great, because it means your colleagues are already working hard to represent communities accurately and fairly, but it can become a problem if employees aren’t getting compensated for working outside of their role.
If sensitivity work distracts staff from their job, gets in the way of opportunities for advancement, exhausts or harms them, or if they are undercompensated for the nature of the work they are actually doing, you have a problem.
If you’re asking your sources (or interns, relatives, and neighbors!) to take a look at your work, you may be exploiting people in your community by asking them to perform a highly technical and emotionally draining task for your newsroom uncompensated. Don’t do that.
But as they say, recognizing the problem is the first step to finding a solution. Here are a handful of newsroom tasks and asks that can go uncompensated, the type of sensitivity work you’re asking for, and a relative market value (Yelp restaurant style).
|What you’re calling it now:
|What it [actually] is:
|“Gut check”“Does this sound problemattic?” “Go ask [staff person], they’re [identity]”
|Sensitivity consulting, on retainer
|Checking terms in a manuscript against an inclusive style guide
|Calling out folks in your community of practice when they make a whoopsies on Twitter
|Putting someone in touch with an expert, sending them books and articles
|Research, sourcing, reporting
|Reforming source recruitment, outreach strategy, messaging, pitch process
|Program management, inclusion consulting