Author Archives: Peter Vermij

About Peter Vermij

Maybe later

‘Wanted: ethical guidelines for freelancers’

Today, Tamar Haspel, a freelance US journalist covering science and food, published a fiery rebuttal of a story in HuffPost bij Paul Thacker, a freelance science journalist and consultant for non-profit-organizations who has written previously about conflict of interests in science journalism.

Thacker had raised suspicion on Haspel’s objectivity of her work in part because of her taking fees for serving as a speaker or moderator at events sponsored by companies, non-profits, universities and/or media.

It’s an interesting tale at many levels — not least because Haspel, who in her work opines supportive of some GM foods and because of that can easily end up in the cross hairs of advocates who disagree, has arguably done more than many science journalists to try and play by clear ethics guidelines, and Thacker himself also consults for non-profits.

Haspel drew up and published some guidelines for herself, after discovering that no general guidelines exist, and publishes a list of her speaking engagements.

In her rebuttal to the HuffPost story, Tamar linked to an interesting undated post of herself on the website of the US National Press Foundation. In it she had called for someone to come up with ethical guidelines that she could work by. In a follow-up, she described her conversations with ethicists while trying to create her own.

Some quotes from those posts:

“Okay, freelancers, let’s talk about money. We need it to keep a roof over our heads, and not all of us get all we need from journalism. Which leads to the problem I’d like to solve: how do we ethically navigate the world of conferences and events, travel expenses and speaking fees, and other work in general?”

“[..] the rest of the world is a complicated place rife with conflict-of-interest pitfalls. I’ve found precious little help navigating these issues.”

Most ethics guidelines specify that journalists need to avoid conflict-of-interest, or the appearance of conflict-of-interest. That appearance part is tricky, because it is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. I write about some controversial issues (genetically modified food foremost among them), and people who disagree with me may see the appearance of conflict-of-interest where people who agree with me see none.”

I’d like to try and build something like a consensus on how freelancers should make decisions about where it’s OK to speak and where it isn’t, which trips are appropriate and which aren’t, and how to fit non-journalism work into a journalism career. I recognize that no one set of guidelines will cover all of us, but some general principles sure would be helpful.

“Here are a few of the questions I’ve struggled with:
How do we handle conferences sponsored by several groups – academic, nonprofit, and industry?
Are travel expenses in a different category than fees and honoraria?
Does the content of the event matter, or just the source of the funding?”

“In my conversations with [ethicists], they all stressed that a wide variety of factors contribute to whether something presents the potential for a conflict of interest. The obvious ones are the funder and whether or not the journalist is being paid but the less obvious ones – the audience, the venue, the other participants, the content, the journalist’s role – all matter.”

Link: Tamar’s call for ethical guidelines

Lines protecting ‘science journalism’ remain blurry

The US National Association of Science Writers (NASW) will continue to exclude members who ‘act on behalf of an institution or company to affect media coverage‘ from leading roles.

A proposed change to the NASW bylaws, which would have scrapped the rule keeping non-journalist members from serving as ‘officers’ (i.e. president, vice-president, treasurer or secretary) of the association, was voted down by members. A similar proposal had been rejected in 2016.

The NASW bylaws stipulate that ‘a substantial majority of an officer’s science-writing activities shall be journalism. Officers may not write press releases or otherwise act on behalf of an institution or company to affect media coverage while they serve in office. Officers who engage in such activities shall notify the Board immediately. They may remain on the Board, but the Board shall appoint another fully qualified member to carry out the officer duties.”

Protector

The current bylaws seem an attempt to safeguard NASW’s role as a protector of independent science journalism. They try to do that by drawing lines between ‘science journalists’ and other members, but those line are pretty blurry.

In 1998, NASW dropped separate member categories for ‘journalists’ and ‘PIOs’. Since then its charter describes all regular members as “people who are professional science writers or instructors of science writing. This includes — but is not limited to — journalists, authors, editors, producers, public information officers, and people who write and produce films, museum exhibits, and other material intended to inform the public about science and technology.”

This particular bylaw ended up being a compromise between those aiming to preserve the association’s identity as an organization dedicated to journalism and those seeking a more general role of serving anyone who communicates publicly about science.

NASW was founded in 1934 and formally incorporated in 1955. Its charter says it “shall foster the dissemination of accurate information regarding science and technology through all media normally devoted to informing the public; and shall foster the interpretation of science and its meaning to society, in keeping with the highest standards of journalism. In addition, this organization shall foster and promote the professional interests of science writers.”

Some NASW members attempt to draw firm lines

On Medium.com, WIRED columnist Mary McKenna and 86 other members of the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW) have published an open letter opposing a (repeated) proposal to make any member of the association eligible for its leading positions.

“An organization that professes journalism principles should be led by journalists,” a subhead says.

The bylaws amendment that would end priority treatment for ‘journalists’ was reintroduced earlier in 2018 after having been voted down in 2016.

Independent, accountable and transparant

In countering the amendment, the signatories to the open letter try to draw firm lines between science journalists and others. For that, they rely in part on the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, calling the principles by which journalists have to live their professional lives ‘specific and unforgiving’: “Seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent.”

For journalists, they write, “[their] chief responsibility is to owe no obligation to any entity or person who has gathered or provided any of the information we report.

The principles by which communications professionals do their work are inevitably different. Whether they are public information officers making statements, media affairs officers handling press inquiries, or university science writers composing narratives for magazines and websites, their chief responsibility is to represent their agency or institution in a positive and comprehensive way.

“[..] our ethics are different. It is a blurring of lines to insist they are the same. [..] Perception is important. Independence is vital. With journalism itself under assault by multiple branches of government, this is more true than it has been in many of our lifetimes.”

‘Not making judgments’

The letter does acknowledge that in the real world lines have become much more blurred.

“Are all these rules always clear? No. Edge cases abound. The economic realities of 21st century journalism force many reporters, especially freelancers, to choose between doing only journalism and taking on advocacy and marketing work. We are not making judgments about how people earn their incomes; but we do assert that even freelancers who do journalism part-time continue to live by journalistic principles.

Link: the open letter in full

Line-blurring in Australia

Damien Cave, Australian Bureau Chief for the New York Times, writes he still believes in ethical limits designed to avoid the “appearance of bias” and maintain a sense of healthy detachment from what journalists cover — although many people these days question them.

I’ve been thinking more about that here in Australia because I often see them challenged,” he writes in his latest Letter from Australia, headlined ‘Blurred Lines Between Journalists and What We Cover‘.

Some money quotes:

“The calls and emails no longer surprise me: At least three or four times in the past year, a well-meaning and interesting Australian organization has offered to fly me somewhere and pay for my hotel accommodation so I could witness what it does.”

I’ve also turned down a number of freelance pitches that would have been financed by those seeking coverage.”

“I honestly don’t know how common it is for journalism in Australia to be financed by those with a vested interest, but anecdotally, it seems to be on the rise. In a conversation with one of the organizations offering me a trip, I asked why and was told that with Australian media outlets making cutbacks, junkets were often the only way they could cover certain issues.”

But what all these examples show is that the boundary between source (or interest group) and journalist can be shaped, if not erased, in ways that threaten to hamper candid reporting.”

Link: Damien’s full letter.

‘The dilemma facing journalism’

In Cosmos Magazine, Craig Cormick, an Australian science writer, writes about what he calls ‘the dark sides of science journalism – those things that look and sound like good independent science reporting, but may in fact be something other.’

Money quotes:

Looking around on the internet, it is hard to distinguish what is written by a journalist or by somebody paid to write a piece,” says Bianca Nogrady, a freelance journalist, and editor of The Best Australian Science Writing 2015.”

I know of one particular example where the journalist didn’t even think there was something wrong, when University X asked the journalist to write positive stories for them,” adds [Susannah Eliott, the CEO of the Australian Science Media Centre in Adelaide].”

“[..] the influence of sponsors is rarely disclosed, which is a problem, making it hard for any reader to know just how balanced and well-reported a piece may be.”

Link: Craig’s full article

Who are those ‘non-bona fide science journalists’?

On Undark, Rick Borchelt, director of communications and public affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, weighs in on the discussion within the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW) on an amendment of bylaws that would allow non-journalist members to serve as ‘officers’ of the association.

His plea touches on questions related to lines between journalism and pr.

Only bona fide [original emphasis] journalists may serve as officers [..],” he writes, describing the NASW rules as they stand

The words ‘bona fide’ are not part of the actual NASW bylaws, and regrettably Rick does not explain what he means by them. Who are bona fide journalists, and which journalists should not be regarded as bona fide?

Some other quotes:

“[..] I believe it is well overdue to resolve an issue that NASW leadership has ignored in hopes of preserving a fragile détente between our journalists and our members who write (or also write) for non-journalism outlets, rather than addressing this ever more anachronistic remnant of separate-but-equal governance.”

“The community today recognizes that we all have a shared stake in creating and promoting excellent science writing, and that to survive in this changed world, many science writers —including many excellent former journalists— need to avail themselves of support not just from journalism but from a variety of sources of income.”

“For some members and officers, opposition to the amendment reflects a more general concern that journalism is under threat financially and philosophically in America today. They want to view NASW as a bulwark against this tide—and NASW can be. [..] [But] in my opinion, issues about the larger field of journalism are properly addressed by groups of professional journalists.”

Rick clearly acknowledges there being important differences between science journalists and science communicators, and even dares to bring up the thought of ‘non-bona fide science journalists’. But he leaves drawing the lines to others.

Link: Rick’s full post.

Testing blurry lines between journalists and others

On his blog Research Explainer, freelancer Dennis Meredith posts a letter he wrote to the board of the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW) regarding the association’s rule that non-journalists cannot serve as its ‘officers’ (president, vice-president, treasurer, or secretary).

His letter tests lines between science journalists and science communicators as drawn in the NASW bylaws, which state: “A substantial majority of an officer’s science-writing activities shall be journalism. Officers may not write press releases or otherwise act on behalf of an institution or company to affect media coverage while they serve in office.

Some quotes:

“As a [public information officer or PIO] for four decades, I wasn’t eligible to serve as an officer. During that time, I did freelance for such publications as Discover, Popular Science, Air & Space, Science Digest, and newspapers and in-flight magazines.

“Ten years ago I left my last PIO job, and I now freelance and consult on research communication. So, I need to understand whether my mix of writing and consulting satisfies the requirement that a “substantial majority” of my science-writing activities be journalism.”

“Does the “substantial majority” rule pertain strictly to word count, or would a nonfiction book be considered as the equivalent of one media article? I suspect not, and if the appropriate measure is word count—given that [my book] Explaining Research is 100,000 words—how many words’ worth of news releases may I write and still maintain a substantial majority? Also, is there a “statute of limitations,” such that a book published a given number of years ago could not be considered in the substantial majority measure?”

Do science fiction novels count as science journalism?

Meredith received a response from NASW president Robin Marantz Henig, which appears not to be publicly available. In his rebuttal to that response, Meredith added:

“[..] your answer regarding writing news releases implies that writing even one release, not to mention occasional releases, would trigger the requirement that an officer step down. Is that true?”

“Nor does your answer indicate that there is any policy—or indeed any discussion at all—of how to interpret the vague requirement that “A substantial majority of an officer’s science-writing activities shall be journalism.” This is of significant interest to freelancers like me who engage in an eclectic, ever-changing mix of journalistic, quasi-journalistic, and news-release-writing projects to keep our heads above financial water.”

“[..] regarding the journalism requirement for officers, I’d like to explore the issue of what constitutes “journalism” these days. The current rule was written in the last century and reflects an outmoded twentieth-century attitude regarding news releases.

“Back then, the sole purpose of a news release was to affect media coverage, because that coverage was the only conduit to the public. Today, research news releases posted on services such as EurekAlert! and Newswise are available to the public online globally. In fact, they are posted right along with media stories on such news aggregators as Google News. A recent search revealed more than 25,000 EurekAlert! and 6,000 Newswise releases on Google News. This fact is one reason that there is a case to be made that research news releases are now, indeed, journalism.

Certainly, they don’t offer the independent assessment and perspective of a media story. However, many media research stories don’t either, merely describing the research finding.”

“In fact, research news releases may well be superior to news stories in their accuracy. They are usually more detailed, and arguably more accurate than media stories, because in reputable news offices, they are fact-checked by the scientists.”

It does seem that the NASW’s blurry lines are not yet the final words in this story.

Link: Dennis’s full letter and follow-up

Blurred lines defining Canadian science ‘journalists’

In Vice, Kate Lunau writes about ‘Science Journalism’s Identity Crisis‘, in a piece that covers the fact that the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the National Association of Science Writers are considering constitutional changes that would allow people working in science PR to head these groups.

“They could be a freelance journalist who dabbles in communications work, as I briefly considered doing, and as a growing number of my colleagues do, too,” she writes.

“Of the CSWA’s 603 members, 265 currently identify as a “science journalist,” whereas 388 are “science communicators,” and 209 are in “research.” (People can choose to identify as more than one thing.) Just 159 of us, which actually seems high to me, say they strictly do science journalism.

This appears to mean that 106 (40%) out of the 265 CSWA members who self-identify as ‘science journalists’ are not exclusively engaged in independent science journalism. That echoes similar outcomes of a global survey reported elsewhere on this site.

“The classic journalist model is falling apart,” said Lougheed, a longtime freelance science writer [and incoming CSWA President]. “Journalists are trying to hold their heads up high, [but] the wheels have fallen off the bus.”

The hope is that a new constitution will strengthen protections against conflict of interest, and emphasize the role of science communication “in the public interest,” Lougheed said.”

Link: Kate’s full article.

A looming rift in science journalism?

On Undark, Aleszu Bajak paints a rather dark picture of the future of the US National Association of Science Writers. Under the headline ‘A Looming Rift in Science Journalism‘, Aleszu describes the debates of a proposed change to the NASW constitution, which would make non-journalists eligible for leadership roles.

Some money quotes:

PIOs and their supporters argue that the hard lines that used to define [the two] professions no longer pertain in the modern era, and that in any case, the number of NASW members who consider themselves journalists alone is vanishing. “You can’t define journalism and you can’t define journalist,” said Karl Bates, the director of research communications at Duke University and long-time NASW member.

“Joe Palca, a science reporter for National Public Radio, was president of NASW between 1999 and 2000, which coincided with another constitutional change — one that allowed PIOs to gain full membership in the organization in the first place. “It used to be that you were a full-fledged member if you were a science journalist and an associate member if you were a public information officer,” Palca explained. Back then, he said, “it was relatively easy to understand who was strictly a journalist and who wasn’t. But times have changed. I no longer consider it to be a professional organization of science journalists like it used to be.”

“The recent report comes amidst a larger debate that’s been roiling the scientific journalism community in recent years. At the heart of that debate is the charge that rigorous coverage of the sciences has devolved into a flabby affair in which reporters more readily minister to the interests of scientists and the institutions they represent than to the needs and interests of ordinary readers.”

Link: Aleszu’s full piece.

US survey echoes global survey on blurring lines

A committee tasked with studying a proposed change to the constitution of the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW) has filed its report. Its major finding might be that most NASW members say they are mixing the roles of ‘journalists’ and ‘public information officers’. Half of those calling themselves ‘journalists’ report (also?) working for non-media organizations.

A survey under 718 NASW members echoes the outcomes of our global survey, which had also made very clear that a large (and possibly growing) number of people who present themselves as ‘journalists’ do (also) work for organizations that have financial interests in the area that they publicly write about.

Some quotes from the report:

“The NASW membership is a heterogeneous group that includes a mix of journalists, public
information officers (PIOs), and many science writers that do not identify as either.”

“718 [NASW members taking part in a survey] answered the question “Which label or labels would you use to identify yourself?” Response options were limited to “Journalist,” “Public information officer or other media relations professional [PIO],” and ”Other.” Respondents could select as many options as they wanted.

  • 416 people (58%) label themselves as “Journalists”. Of these,
    • 278 (67%) label themselves only as journalists.
    • 61 (16%) also self-identify as PIOs
    • 138 (33%) also label themselves as PIOs, “Other,” or both.
  • 120 people (17%) label themselves only as PIOs.
  • 155 people (22%) label themselves only as “Other.”

The NASW committee writes: “The fact that such a large number of NASW members label themselves as “Other” indicates that many members do not think of themselves as either journalists or PIOs.

Many self-identified ‘journalists’ described job duties that did not involve working for independent media organizations: Of journalists (n=416), 50% write/edit for an institution such as a university, research institute or center, scientific society, nonprofit organization, museum, government agency, advocacy organization, or company.”

Vice versa, many PIOs do work for media organizations: “Of PIOs (n=212), 37% write/edit in a journalistic role for print, online, or broadcast media outlets.”

While the precise questions in the NASW survey and the global survey differed in subtle ways, they seem to paint very similar pictures.

Oddly enough, the NASW committee did not conclude from these findings that the question they were asked (‘Should non-journalists be eligible for leading roles in the NASW?’) is moot, since it is not clear at all which members really are ‘journalists’ and which ones are not.

The committee reports having received letters on the proposed changes. “Letterwriters
had varying, and sometimes inaccurate, perceptions of what PIOs do, what
freelance writers/editors do and what constitutes journalism.”

Regrettably, the committee does not specify what it saw as ‘accurate’ perceptions of these roles.

Link: the full report of the NASW Constitutional Review Ad Hoc Committee (pdf).