There’s a very interesting post (if you’re a science writer) on journalistic ethics from Erik Vance here. I confess that I’ve been blissfully ignorant of this PR sideline that many science writers apparently have. It makes for a fairly clear division – either you’re writing PR or you’re not – but it doesn’t speak to my situation, and I can’t be alone in that. Erik worries about stories that come out of “institutionally sponsored trips”. I’m not entirely clear what he means by that, but I’m often in a situation like this:
A lab or department has asked if I might come and give a talk or take part in a seminar or some such. They’ll pay my expenses, including accommodation if necessary. And if I think it’ll be interesting, I’ll try to do it.
Is this then a junket? You see, what often happens is that the institute in question might line up a little programme of visits to researchers at the place in question, because I might find their work interesting or perhaps just because they would like to talk to me. And indeed I might well find their work interesting and want to write about it, or perhaps about the broader issues of the field they bring to my attention.
Now the question is: am I compromised by having the trip paid for me? Even more so on those rare occasions that I’m paid an honorarium? It’s for such reasons that Nature would always insist that the journal, not the visited institution, pays the way for its writers. This seems fair enough for a journal, but shouldn’t the same apply to a freelancer then?
I could say that life as a freelancer is already hard enough, given for example the more or less permanent freeze in pay rates, without our having to pay ourselves for any travelling that might produce a story (not least because you don’t always know that in advance). When a journal writer goes to give a talk or makes a lab visit, they are being paid by their employer to do it. As a freelancer, you are sacrificing working time to do that, and so are essentially already losing money by making the trip even if your travel and accommodation are covered.
But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it? It doesn’t mean that the piece you write is uncompromised just because you couldn’t afford to have gone if your expenses weren’t paid.
I don’t know what the answer is here. I do know that as a freelancer you’ll only get to write a piece if you pitch it to an editor who likes it, i.e. if it is a genuinely good story in the first place. In fact, you’ll probably only want to write it anyway if you sense it’s a good story yourself, and you do yourself no favours by pitching weak stories. But will your coverage be influenced by having been put up at a nice (if you’re lucky!) hotel by the institution? Erik is right to warn about unconscious biases, but I can’t easily see why the story would come out any different than if you’d come across the same work in a journal paper – you’d still be getting outside comment on it from objective specialists and so on. Still, I might be missing some important considerations here, and would be glad to have any pointed out to me.
It seems to me that a big part of this comes down to the attitude of the writer. If you start off from the position that you’re a cheerleader for science, you’re likely to be uncritical however you discover the story. If you consider yourself a critic in the proper sense, like a music or theatre critic, you’ll tend to look at the work accordingly. The same, it seems to me, has always applied to the issue of showing the authors a draft of the piece you’ve written about their work. Some journalists consider this an absolute no-no. I’ve never really understood why. If the scientist comes back pointing out technical errors in the piece, as they often do (and almost invariably in the nicest possible way), you get to give your readers a more accurate account. If they start demanding changes that seem unnecessary, interfering or pedantic, for example insisting that Professor Plum’s comments on their work are way off key, you just say sorry guys, this is the way it stays. That’s surely the job of a journalist. I can’t remember a time when feedback from authors on a rough draft was ever less than helpful and improving. So I guess I just don’t see what the problem is here.
But I am very conscious that I’ve never had any real training, as far as I can recall, in ethics in journalism. So I might be out of touch with what the issues are.