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‘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

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.