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
— CRDF Global (@crdfglobal) June 26, 2013

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

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