Ethical Quandaries


shutterstock_248737984Last weekend, nerds from across the US and the world gathered in Cambridge Massachusetts to discuss the media coverage of other, often bigger nerds. It is known as the National Association of Science Writers annual meeting and it’s one of the highlights of my year.

This year I thought it might be fun to participate in a panel about journalism ethics. Because a) it’s a crucial topic I believe in passionately and, b) apparently I didn’t have enough people angry at me in my life.

The panel focused on conflicts of interest – sources of income that may bias a journalist in one way or other. We started with a lively back-and-forth between myself and Mark Schrope, a longtime ocean journalist and public relations guy for ocean science institutes (and one of the most stand-up guys I know in this business).

The conversation boiled down to whether Mark’s working for some ocean science labs hurts his ability to cover other labs and groups as a journalist. It’s the dirty little secret of the modern freelance journalist that in order to make rent we often have to supplement our journalism with PR work – a press release here, a promotional pamphlet there. I’ve done it, editors do it, most people you read in magazines do it.

But journalistic outlets generally consider it a breach of “journalistic ethics” to then turn around and write about that same company – or even that same field – for them right afterward. At least that’s how it used to be. With sinking news budgets and blurring lines in between journalism and PR, more than a few folks see these rules as outdated.

Hence, writers today must trace a careful road between PR work and journalism that their readers are rarely aware of. And a lot of journalists eventually just give up and turn to PR full time. According to NASW stats, 213 people at the meeting were there on behalf of an organization while just 58 were staff journalists. Meanwhile, a whopping 225 of us were freelancers, which is where things get sticky. And according to the Columbia Journalism Review, it’s a similar story across all media.

None of this is new – it’s been a problem facing journalism for decades now. That’s why I was surprised when, after the presentation, I heard about the heavy level of rage that had been emanating from the audience. A testy back and forth started crackling on Twitter between purists and realists over a number of different issues from internship pay to the exclusionary culture of journalists.

One of the problems seems to be the words we use. Journalists have a habit of referring to conflicts of interest as “unethical” because they breach journalism ethics. Which is misleading and understandably pisses off some very ethical people who do PR. Journalism ethics are not the same things as normal ethics. You’re not unethical or immoral if you don’t follow them. You’re just not doing true journalism. Maybe the right word isn’t even “ethics” but rather “code.” Journalistic code.

I asked Mitch Waldrop, a veteran respected science writer, journalist, and occasional flak who now works for Nature how he frames it. He said a PR person is like a lawyer. They argue for their side without question. They push for their client and let the chips fall where they may. Like a PR person, a lawyer’s most important decision is picking who to back in the first place – meaning which client to choose. After that, they’re all in.

When a lawyer gets in front of a camera or a jury we listen because he has important insights. And contrary to your average lawyer joke, many of them are ethical people who believe in their clients and work hard for them. But they are not independent; they are not unbiased.

A journalist meanwhile is the cop (or occasionally the judge). She looks at all the sides evenly and tries to sort out a message that best helps the reader understand the story. She has to keep in mind that her best friend or the eminent scientist she respects might be lying through their teeth. And like a cop, she occasionally gives in to her personal biases. She goes easy on someone she shouldn’t or gives credit to the researchers with the fancy website instead of the ones who did the best work. When she spots the mistake she scolds herself and promises to do better next time.

Biases creep into our work through the sources we choose to cite, the order in which we present the story and what we see as the most important details. Anyone who thinks they are immune to these cognitive biases is fooling themselves. Anyone who thinks they can be biased on one story and then truly stay neutral on another similar one the next day is simply wrong. God knows I can’t, no matter what I tell myself.

And I’ll be honest, a few of my favorite stories here on LWON have come out of institutionally sponsored trips. Each time, I struggled with whether or not my perception of the story had been compromised and usually I had to admit it was. That’s right, that means my LWON work is not purely journalistic and I can’t promise that it ever will be (it’s also unpaid, remember). Below (*) are a few stories published on this website that resulted from trips sponsored by The Nature Conservancy (as a junket) and The Rotary Club (for their promotional magazine). Can you see my bias? I know I can’t and that’s the problem.

So here we stand. Will I promise never to do another PR job in my career? Of course not. There’s too much gray area these days and paychecks are too low. I’ll continue to experiment with new outlets and alternate business models to carve out the best, most ethical body of work I can.

However, what I – and what all of us – should promise is that we won’t mix our straight journalism with our PR work. PR topics are poison fruit until they ripen a little (two years is an oft-cited number). We should look vigilantly at our work while striving to be as unbiased as we can. We should acknowledge that we are fallible humans who can be compromised without knowing it.

And then we must strive to do better. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to you, the reader who allows us to have the best frigging job on the planet.


A Crappy Little Bastard That Tastes GreatSearching for the World’s Worst Glass of WaterA Bookseller And His Well

** Slight change made to the third paragraph to better reflect Mark’s professional position.

*** Special thanks to Betsy Mason, who occasionally looked over my shoulder during a talk on universe expansion to correct my grammar.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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5 thoughts on “Ethical Quandaries

  1. Thanks for the mention, Erik. But I did want to clarify my lawyer metaphor (which was one I came to after working in NSF public affairs for three years.) Yes, PIOs are like lawyers in the sense that their job is to make the case for their institution — to make sure its side of the story gets presented in the most effective way possible. But it’s hardly ‘without question’. Quite the opposite: a good PIO should be the person in the inside arguing for fullest and most honest disclosure — ESPECIALLY when the higher-ups don’t want to hear it, and ESPECIALLY when the information is embarrassing and unpleasant. As PIO extraordinaire Rick Borchelt likes to say, his office holds the institution’s trust portfolio.

  2. That’s actually an interesting point, Mitch. See, I would argue that every time I have done PIO work, I felt zero wiggle room in messaging. Even stories reflecting the chaotic nature of science – ones that played up luck or weird ad-hoc equipment or failed experiments – were shot down.
    Also, dear reader, you should know that the metaphor was Mitch’s but the extrapolation was all me.

  3. Hi Erik nice post. Might want to let Mark chime in here so he can include the caveats and guidelines he follows that he mentioned at the panel (i don’t remember what he said about actually covering labs he’d been paid for)

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