Dispatches from the fence that used to separate science journalism from science pr
This website is dedicated to a discussion about the blurring of the lines that used to separate science journalism from science PR. With budgets for science journalism shrinking, growing numbers of science journalists choose not so much to ‘jump the fence’ between journalism and PR but to work on both sides of the fence at the same time. Some worry that this growing grey zone will erode public trust in science journalism and ultimately in the art of science as well.
If a company would award all-expenses-paid holiday trips to a small number of selected journalists to cover its annual meeting and have a pre-arranged interview with its CEO, calling it a ‘press scholarship’, it would be obvious to most people what was going on: corporate PR dressed up as journalism, in plain daylight, that is.
Yet very similar schemes are currently playing out, with for example the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) administering so-called ‘press scholarships’ and the European Union of Science Journalists’ Assocations (EUSJA) doling out ‘travel grants’ to journalists willing to be paid to attend award ceremonies or events.
“The WFSJ is pleased to announce that two journalist [sic] are invited to attend the Award Ceremony of the 2020 [**] Prize and [**] Prize, as well as related events to take place in Bergen and Oslo (Norway), from 2-5 June, 2020,” says a recent WFSJ announcement, distributed through its member associations.
“The grants cover travel expenses, hotel accommodation, and meals. An interview with the [**] Laureate and/or the [**] Laureate may be arranged if requested. The recipients will be selected by the WFSJ [..].”
The EUSJA announcement enthusiastically talks up an event in Heidelberg, Germany, highlighting the organizers’ offer of ‘a limited number of travel grants to enable journalists to report on this compelling networking event.’ The grants cover travel costs and a week of boarding and accommodation.
Neither of the announcements disclose whether or how much WFSJ and/or EUSJA benefit from promoting these events by the organizers.
To be sure, WFSJ and EUSJA are not the only associations to proudly wear the mantle of ‘journalism’ while practicing various types of PR. They are just two typical examples of science journalism and PR getting very mixed up these days.
On the closing day of the 2020 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Seattle (WA, USA), about five dozen science journalists, science communicators, science journalism students and scientists gathered for a lively ‘House of Commons-style’ debate on the development of ethical guidelines for science journalism, sponsored by the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ).
The debate (organized by this blog’s host) prominently featured issues related to real or perceived financial conflicts of interest of science journalists, such as mixing independent journalism and PR, or receiving income, gifts or payments from organizations that journalists are supposed to critically cover.
The session, co-moderated by Peter Vermij and Kai Kupferschmidt, featured introductions by Tamar Haspel, award-winning, US-based freelance food science journalist and Washington Post columnist, and Caroline Fisher, associate professor of journalism at the University of Canberra (Australia), who researches conflicts of interest in journalism. Before entering the scientific field, Fisher served as a political broadcast journalist and (subsequently) as a political media advisor.
Tamar Haspel kicked off by explaining how the human mind is never able to fully shield itself from financial conflicts of interest. Whatever you do, you are bound to be influenced by financial arrangements with others. If, as a freelance journalist, you need to have such arrangements, in part in order to be able to see and interact with the world, then full disclosure is the best way to go. On her website, Haspel therefore publishes her own ‘ethical guidelines’ and her public speaking engagements — even though that may land her in trouble.
The discussion kicked off with an open question: “Have you witnessed science journalists behaving in ethically questionable ways?”
By far most of the participants have, they demonstrated by moving to one side of the aisle. Various observations were offered: journalists wining and dining as guests of industry players, journalists knowingly presenting information in misleading ways, journalists accepting company-sponsored reporting trips, and freelancers working for universities who also write stories in newspapers about scientists from those same universities, and not disclosing that fact. A participant mentioned advocacy organizations managing to get a lot of advocacy pieces that are presented as independent journalism.
Before the actual ‘House of Commons’ debate went underway, the audience was encouraged not to criticize the motions for being simplistic (they always are) but to interpret them however they saw fit and use them to make their points in the discussion.
Managing conflicts if interest
Caroline Fisher, who studies conflicts of interest in journalism at the University of Canberra, zoomed in on conflicts arising from freelancers ‘wearing two hats’. Such conflicts need to be managed ‘terribly, terribly carefully’, she said.
In her research, Fisher found that most journalists tend not to disclose conflicts of interest in the hope of ‘getting away with it’, something she referred to as ‘the hypocrisy of journalism’ in which journalists demand scrutiny of others but not of themselves.
She acknowledged disclosure is risky, since it may draw attention to conflicts and invite suspicion where there had been none. So the issue, she said, requires good thought.
Pros and cons of disclosure
Following this introduction, the first motion was tabled: “Science journalists must always publicly disclose all financial conflicts of interest, including income, free travel and lodging.”
Most of the session participants agreed with this motion. Among those who disagreed, one said ‘you can bite the hand that feeds you’. Haspel countered that ‘we don’t know when we’re being biased’. “Other people’s biases are always obvious to us, while our own are perfectly opaque. [.] This is why judges have to recuse themselves.”
Fisher added that in general, her research showed her, newspaper editors don’t support disclosures for a variety of reasons or excuses.
Tim Appenzeller, editor of Science, said however that he would see a disclosure statement under a story as a last resort because, had there been a financial conflict, he would not have wanted to assign the story to that particular journalist to begin with.
A line between Journalists and non-journalists
The second motion to be discussed was: “Those with more than 1/3 of income coming from non-media clients may not advertise themselves as ‘journalists'”.
Considering the outcomes of previous surveys, this would mean that a considerable part of those who now advertise themselves as ‘science journalists’ should in the future no longer do so.
While most in the audience were not comfortable with a clear border between journalists and others, some offered support to the idea.
“I’m not sure I do agree with the 1/3, but I do agree that there’s a certain point where how you define ‘a journalist’ matters”, said Deborah Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. There is a difference, she said, between someone who is solely doing independent inquiry in science and someone doing corporate science communication. “I do think it’s important for us to allow those lines to be there, and that we allow people to understand what a ‘journalist’ actually is,” she said. “I see that becoming a blurry definition, but I think it’s really important to acknowledge that there are things about journalism itself and the way it stands separate from the scientific enterprise, that it actually matters if we’re going to understand what journalists do.”
Others highlighted the difficulties of making a living from just freelance science journalism as an argument to allow for income from other ‘non-conflicting’ kinds of work. (That of course basically reformulates the question as what would properly define ‘non-conflicting kinds or work’.)
Abiding by guidelines
The final motion that was put up for debate was: “I would abide by new ethical guidelines if they would conflict with any of my current practices.”
Put on the spot this way, most participants in the room said they would indeed follow guidelines as they would be agreed. Some would not commit upfront to abiding by future guidelines, however, for example because they might disagree with them or because they might not be sufficiently backed by the wider community. Also, guidelines that might work in the United States or Europe might not be adopted automatically in other world regions.
Tinsley Davis, director of the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW), described the ongoing project in which NASW is preparing a new guidance document for members to negotiate real or perceived conflicts of interests. Final drafts of that document, to which many NASW members have contributed, were still in the works at the time of the debate.
Finally, a quick poll was held to get some rough idea of how people in the room would rank a number of issues that could be addressed in (global) guidelines. Each attendant was asked to tick three issues that guidelines should mostly address.
‘Combining journalism and PR’ topped the list, followed by ‘Representing research consenss’ and ‘Free travel, lodging, gifts’. ‘Reflecting diversity ended up at the bottom of this selected list.
The ranking should be handled with caution, however, since other signs in the modest-sized audience pointed to many in the room not being part of the science journalism community.
The moderators and speakers of this debate were reimbursed for travel and accommodation expenses (and one meal) by the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ). In return, the sponsor was promised input towards potential future ethical guidelines.
On his Health News Review blog, founder and publisher Gary Schwitzerflags one of many examples of all-expenses-paid trips and the ways in which they are used by funders to influence the agenda of science journalists.
In this particular example, German pharma company Bayer, which markets a number of cardiovascular drugs, sponsored a fellowship four-day training program for 20 journalists titled ‘Covering the Heart Beat’ organized by the US National Press Foundation (NPF).
According to the announcement, “the all-expenses-paid fellowship covers airfare, ground transportation, hotel costs and most meals. NPF offers this professional development opportunity for journalists to enhance skills, increase knowledge and recharge their reporting on one of today’s most critical issues. [..] Support for this training comes from Bayer. NPF retains sole responsibility for programming and content.“
Schwitzer quotes the NSF website saying that “the sponsor(s) will be invited to address the journalists at the start of the program, welcoming them and explaining why they chose to sponsor this program. [..] At the conclusion of the program the sponsor(s) will receive a written evaluation of the program, including ratings and comments from each of the attending journalists.“
The sponsor, in other words, in return for its investment, may see returns in the form of stories on heart disease (and possibly drug treatments). It will for sure build a personal relationship with twenty health care journalists who, following what will probably be a comfortable midwinter get-away, may be more susceptible for their messages than before.
Schwitzer notes that many health care journalists these days will criticize physicians who accept industry money, e.g. through trips, because it may influence their research or drug prescriptions. “It appears that when the shoe is on the other foot, the ethical concerns seem to disappear for some,” he writes.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.’
“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.”
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.
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.”
“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.