A request for a clear definition of science journalism

In The Guardian, Brooke Borel writes passionately about why science journalism must be about writing critically about the scientific enterprise, and laments cases in which people have obfuscated their roles ‘in the interest of science’. A few quotes:

“There is a continued misunderstanding of what science journalism is, and how it differs from other forms of science communication.”

Our media ecosystem blurs these distinctions even more, with bylines of both journalists and advocates appearing at the same media outlets.

Link: Brooke’s full piece

‘Where do science journalists draw the line?’

In the Columbia Journalism Review, Paul Thacker, a science journalist and consultant, confronts the question where science journalists draw the line when it comes to potential conflicts of interest.

Under the headline ‘Where do science journalists draw the line?‘, Thacker describes a scene in a session on ethics at the annual meeting of the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW).

“Toward the end of the session, a veteran journalist went to the microphone and posed the following scenario: You’re reporting on a new paper finding that doctors think they can’t be swayed by gifts from pharmaceutical representatives, even though research shows physicians are in fact influenced by small gratuities such as pens. As part of your reporting, you go to lunch with a pharma representative, who then offers to pick up the tab. Is that okay? Almost everyone in the room agreed that it was not.”

Thacker describes collecting conflict-of-interest and disclosure policies for journalists (and sources) from fourteen media organizations. He writes: “Some draw a bright line—preventing journalists from having financial ties to any outside sources. Others allow some expenses and speaking fees. To complicate matters further, some organizations have written rules, while others consider incidents on a case-by-case basis.”

“[..] The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) advises that members should ‘attempt to avoid’ financial conflicts of interest, while the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) draws a much brighter line: Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.”

The piece contains an interesting review of Thacker’s conversations with editors or spokespersons from mainstream US media organizations including Bloomberg, Reuters, New York Times, Science, Nature, Washington Post, National Public Radio and Discover.

Some quotes:

“Indeed, freelancers open up a whole different set of problems. Like the scientists they cover, many have streams of money that can create conflicts of interest. A spokesperson for National Public Radio wrote that it has turned down pieces from freelancers who had “some of their reporting expenses paid by groups or organizations with interests in the subjects they were covering.”

“An Editor at Discover [..] added that the NASW standards should be strengthened, especially as more freelancers combine journalism with contract writing work for universities and industry. ‘Writers must maintain professional credibility by keeping those two arenas completely separate, i.e., they can’t be writing about a specific scientist for an industry publication and turn around and sell a similar story to a consumer science magazine, all based on the reporting of that initial industry assignment.’ ”

Link: Paul’s full story

The demise of science journalism?

On the website of the Australian Science Communicators, the ‘peak body for science communicators and science journalists in Australia’, Bianca Nogrady reports on recent attempts in Australia to draw clear lines between science journalists and science communications.

Quotes:

“Are you a science journalist or a science communicator? For people outside the science communication sphere, this question might seem like an exercise in splitting hairs, but for those of us whose day-to-day lives are embedded in this arena, it’s actually quite important.”

“However it can be difficult to find clear, unassailable points of distinction that distinguish science journalists from science communicators. Is it who’s paying? Is it the determination of an underlying message? These seem like obvious answers but the often strong underlying agendas of publishing companies make things less clear-cut.”

“And so it was that [the Australian Science Communicators NSW branch] recently assembled a crack team of science journalists and science communicators to help find the answer.”

It turns out that the intersection between science journalism and science communication is complex and messy and –particularly in this new era of online media– more important to debate than ever.

“The reason is that science journalism –being defined as the kind of ‘objective’, critical reporting and analysis that our panel is most experienced in– is on the decline, at least in the mainstream media.”

“[A] rise in ‘native content’ – advertising content designed to match its publishing surroundings – does create some dilemmas both for publishers and journalists. [..] For journalists, particularly freelancers, it can lead to conflicts of interest if one is asked to write a critical news piece about a research organization that one also writes content for.

“The downside to [the] transition away from science journalism to science communication is that we are likely to see less of the critical, independent reporting and analysis that science – as with any other human endeavour – should be subject to.”

Link: Bianca’s full piece

‘On Science Journalism And Conflicts Of Interest’

On the blog Popular Science, Brooke Borel, a freelance journalist, writes about how modern-day freelancers like herself grapple with questions surrounding conflicts of interest in science journalism.

Navigating potential conflicts is dicey for reporters—and especially freelancers, she concluded in a subheadline.

Recalling a question asked at a session on ethics at the Annual Meeting of the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW), she writes:

“In some cases, writers may have the opportunity to do paid work for universities and companies. Is it okay for those same writers to work as journalists for media outlets? If so, under what circumstances? The answers varied. Some people argued that it is never okay to take on work like this if you want to be a journalist; others said it’s okay as long as there wasn’t overlap in the topics covered; and still others thought even that might be okay, as long as there is a clear disclosure stating the potential conflict.”

(Apparently no one said it’s okay even without disclosure, which seems to happen a lot.)

Borel then describes one of her own struggles. Invited to an all-expenses-and-more-paid, biotech industry-sponsored ‘Biotech Literacy Boot Camp’, she collected counsel from several colleagues. Summing it up, she writes: “Don’t take the honorarium. Do consider the travel money. It isn’t money going into your pocket, which limits the potential COI, and you can do some good by being there, both to present your views on the panels you sit on and to bring back valuable information for your readers. And if you ever write about the conference: Disclose that money clearly.”

Borel decided indeed to pass on the $2,000 honorarium but accept the travel expenses, accommodation and meals and disclose those in a later story on GMOs.

She writes: “None of us are capable of truly seeing our own potential [conflicts of interests], because many of us see ourselves as mostly good people who will do the right thing regardless. The problem with that assumption, though, is precisely that we are people: our psychology is messy.”

“So, my advice to other writers—and especially freelancers, who might not have obvious guidance on these potential conflicts—is to ask where money offered to you is coming from. Think about how that money may be perceived to someone else, if you were to take it. Ask yourself what you think you will do if you take that money and then want to write objectively about the people who gave it to you, or about topics they may not agree with. Talk to your editors and your peers to see what they would do.”

“And disclose, disclose, disclose.”

Link: Brooke’s full post

Kavli/WFSJ symposium seeks definition of science journalism

Last February the World Federation of Science Journalists and The Kavli Foundation organized their first Symposium on the Future of Science Journalism, with the goal of strengthening independent and critical science journalism.

At the meeting, 50 science journalists from 16 countries discussed, among other things, that “it is becoming increasingly clear that science journalism needs to better define and distinguish itself in the midst of a growing array of information sources.” From the report:

Thanks in part to suggestions from Dan Fagin from New York University, “the working group [..] recommends creating a collaborative working document that states the core values and skill competencies of science journalists and explicates what the group means when it says this is good science journalism.”

“Draft inclusions in this document are:

  1. Core Values
    1. Challenge and verify
    2. Transparency
    3. Context
    4. Use of evidence
    5. Integrity
    6. Engagement
  2. Core competencies
    1. Science literacy and numeracy
    2. Use and evaluation of experts and expertise
    3. Use of evidence and scientific augmentation
    4. Clear, entertaining presentation of scientific information
    5. Understand and pursue science and society connections
    6. Combining science storytelling/backgrounds with use of new digital and social media tools.

Link: the symposium’s full report (pdf)

Nature: independent science journalism needed

The journal Nature weighs in with an editorial about the ongoing need for independent science journalists that are ready to go beyond press releases and truly investigate scientific matters. Money quote:

Expensive, time-consuming and often unpopular with readers, this is the science journalism that is most in danger. It is the science journalism that needs to survive if the public is to be properly informed and the powerful to be held accountable.

Read the full Nature editorial.

Outcomes of global survey now available

General outcomes of the global survey on ‘blurring lines’, also sometimes referred to as ‘science journalism and other hats’, have now been published. Thanks to all 403 science journalists who took the time to answer the questions.
The survey will remain a key source of information for the discussion and will therefore continue to be available directly from the menu at the top of this website.

Here’s just one of many fascinating charts:

Do check out the full survey outcomes!

The Helsinki Debate: another inside report

Anne Sasso

Anne Sasso, the second of our speakers at the Helsinki Debate, posted some thoughts from before and after the session on The Science Writer’s Handbook website.

Money quote:

“Of course, it’s easy to follow strict rules when you’re earning a good salary, have benefits and enjoy a relative degree of stability. It’s another thing entirely in the freelance world. Step outside the world of newspaper journalism and the rules—if there are any—seem highly arbitrary.”

Read Anne’s post in full.

The Helsinki Debate: an inside report

Kai Kupferschmidt

Kai Kupferschmidt, our first speaker at the Helsinki Debate, posted a report on his experiences with the debate on his blog.

Money quote:

“After the opening statements, Peter presented some ethical dilemmas and people in the room were asked to go to one side of the room if they answered yes and the other side if they answered no. It was a great tool, because it meant that everybody in the session was taking a stance and could be called upon to justify it. It made for a lively, fun hour, but I also came away from it with a strong feeling that the lines were indeed blurring, or as someone pointed out, the lines might be clear, but people are jumping back and forth over those lines more and more. Journalists, then, are becoming blurry.”

Read Kai’s report in full.

The Helsinki Debate: a packed ‘House of Commons’

Today in Helsinki, together with my friend and colleague Hans van Maanen, I hosted what we had announced as a ‘lively’ debate on the issue of ‘blurring lines’. Using a format that resembles debates at the UK’s House of Commons, about 75 people crammed into a lunch room at the University of Helsinki.

Greatly helped by our speakers Kai Kupferschmidt and Anne Sasso, who had agreed to play the roles of ‘saint’ and ‘whore’ (her own words) to help the discussion take off, many people enthusiastically joined the fray. Unusually hot Helsinki weather, and the lack of air conditioning, helped to heat things up as well.

During the debate, as in the global survey that was held in the run-up to it, it became clear that people felt the issue indeed should be discussed, and that they hold very different opinions as to what is acceptable and what -if anything- should be done.

Some felt that there are only ‘acts of journalism’ and ‘acts of pr’, and that it does not matter whether one person commits both acts intermittently as long as they are done well in their own right. Others felt however that combining the two should only be done if, for example, subjects and sources can be held fully apart.

Asked whether they always tell their readers about trips that have been paid by their story subjects, most who were present suggested that indeed they had. On closer inspection, however, it turned out that readers may only have heard that the trip was ‘organized’ by a particular company, NGO or research organization, while the financial support for some reason was not mentioned. Clear rules are not (yet) available here.

By the end of the debate, the crowd was fired up and ready to take the debate home to their national associations. Should we perhaps all try to agree on some common rules, which everyone then can try to go by? Stay tuned for what will happen on those fronts.

We receive some good feedback through Twitter as well:

Great debate session @WCSJ2013 with author @sciwrihandbook Anne Sasso & Germany’s @kakape can u be both? #wcsj13 pic.twitter.com/lBYyIVrSLO
— CRDF Global (@crdfglobal) June 26, 2013

Packed session on how to preserve independence in a time of increasing freelancing and PR #WCSJ2013 pic.twitter.com/rvRFFSLxQH
— Michele Catanzaro (@mcatanzaro) June 25, 2013