‘Where do science journalists draw the line?’

In the Columbia Journalism Review, Paul Thacker, a science journalist and consultant, confronts the question where science journalists draw the line when it comes to potential conflicts of interest.

Under the headline ‘Where do science journalists draw the line?‘, Thacker describes a scene in a session on ethics at the annual meeting of the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW).

“Toward the end of the session, a veteran journalist went to the microphone and posed the following scenario: You’re reporting on a new paper finding that doctors think they can’t be swayed by gifts from pharmaceutical representatives, even though research shows physicians are in fact influenced by small gratuities such as pens. As part of your reporting, you go to lunch with a pharma representative, who then offers to pick up the tab. Is that okay? Almost everyone in the room agreed that it was not.”

Thacker describes collecting conflict-of-interest and disclosure policies for journalists (and sources) from fourteen media organizations. He writes: “Some draw a bright line—preventing journalists from having financial ties to any outside sources. Others allow some expenses and speaking fees. To complicate matters further, some organizations have written rules, while others consider incidents on a case-by-case basis.”

“[..] The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) advises that members should ‘attempt to avoid’ financial conflicts of interest, while the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) draws a much brighter line: Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.”

The piece contains an interesting review of Thacker’s conversations with editors or spokespersons from mainstream US media organizations including Bloomberg, Reuters, New York Times, Science, Nature, Washington Post, National Public Radio and Discover.

Some quotes:

“Indeed, freelancers open up a whole different set of problems. Like the scientists they cover, many have streams of money that can create conflicts of interest. A spokesperson for National Public Radio wrote that it has turned down pieces from freelancers who had “some of their reporting expenses paid by groups or organizations with interests in the subjects they were covering.”

“An Editor at Discover [..] added that the NASW standards should be strengthened, especially as more freelancers combine journalism with contract writing work for universities and industry. ‘Writers must maintain professional credibility by keeping those two arenas completely separate, i.e., they can’t be writing about a specific scientist for an industry publication and turn around and sell a similar story to a consumer science magazine, all based on the reporting of that initial industry assignment.’ ”

Link: Paul’s full story

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