‘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

Leave a Reply