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
— 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

Debate planned for Helsinki

At the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki, Finland, my friend and colleague Hans van Maanen and myself will host a lively debate session titled “The blurring lines between journalism and PR. How to preserve independence?”

The session, on 25 June, 2013, will feature an animated debate, sparked by some results of a new survey. What are the trends, what (if anything) could we do to counter them?
Should journalists stop earning extra by writing for PR magazines, brochures or funding proposals? Should journalists disclose all potential conflicts of interest (such as free travel)? Should governments, universities and researchers stop financing journalists and/or media organizations? Should media reject sponsored science content? Could a new code of ethics help, perhaps, in making the slope less slippery?

Organisers and moderators

Peter Vermij, now a Dutch science communications consultant for corporate, NGO and research organization clients, previously an award-winning science reporter for newspapers, television and science journals including Nature Biotechnology and Nature Medicine.

Hans van Maanen, acclaimed freelance science writer and popular science book author from the Netherlands, specializing in statistics.


Kai Kupferschmidt, a freelance science journalist based in Berlin. He studied molecular biomedicine at the University of Bonn and journalism at the Berlin Journalism School. He works as a contributing correspondent for ‘Science’ magazine and edits a weekly science page at German newspaper ‘Der Tagesspiegel’.

Anne Sasso, a Vermont-based freelance journalist, equally at home in leading outdoor and science magazines as in the boardrooms of corporate clients. She contributed to The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything you Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age’. Today, she writes almost exclusively for corporate clients.

Heikki Kuutti, a senior researcher in Journalism at the Department of Communication of the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. Before moving into research, Heikki worked at regional Finnish newspapers. In between, he served as Head of Information at the Finnish Air Force.

A global survey on blurring lines

In the run-up to a debate session at the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki, Finland, the session organizers have created an online survey to investigate beforehand how many other ‘hats’ science journalists are wearing these days, and how often.

It used to be quite straightforward: journalism and public relations were separate worlds, and both journalists and pr officers would stay in their own spheres. These days, it’s no longer that simple. PR material is copied into press reports, and many science journalists also do freelance work for non-media, including research and research funding organizations, non-profits, private companies and governments. In other words, they are wearing more than just one hat.

On 25 June 2013, the Helsinki conference will feature an animated debate about this trend and its wider implications.

Outcomes of the survey will be presented in Helsinki and, of course, published online.

[Update: Outcomes now available.]

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.