Where are your red lines? Blurring the distinction between journalism and PR

A recent survey of 390 ‘science journalists’ – predominantly freelances, predominantly European – found that only around one-quarter of respondents earn their living entirely from independent journalism. The majority either supplement their earnings or earn the bulk of their income working in other capacities, either in research (33%) or for governments (10%), NGOs (22%), commercial companies (18%) or other interests.



The term ‘science journalists’ was used loosely to describe the sorts of journalists with some specialist knowledge who write not just about ‘academic’ topics but about contested issues of great public interest in the areas of health, climate change, genetics, energy, water and food supply and more.

So the finding that the majority of respondents who say they work in as independent journalists also do work for organisations that have an interest and agenda, presumably in the same (or closely related) field, raises worrying questions about how independent that coverage really is.

The survey was conducted online in advance of the World Conference of Science Journalists, which took place in Helsinki this June under the title “Critical Questioning in the Public Sphere”.

It aimed to explore to what extent the line between science journalism and PR is becoming blurred, as the crisis in the media has left large numbers of specialist reporters struggling to earn a freelance living writing from an independent perspective, and has left organisations active in specialists fields frustrated at the lack of media coverage of issues that they care about.

The problem of journalists wearing two hats is only one part of a complex picture. The survey also asked about other ways in which independent coverage may be being subverted as even staffers are finding, for instance, that tight restrictions of travel limits their ability to cover many important stories.

What would you do?

Survey participants were asked how they respond to a number of fairly common scenarios.

  • You took a trip with all expenses paid by a subject. Back home, you write a piece for a newspaper. Q: what would you do?
  • You are paid to write a story for a research organization. They hope you (also) offer the story to a newspaper for publication. Q: Would you do it?
  • You do freelance work for a research organization. A newspaper asks you to interview the organization’s new director. Q: Would you do it?
  • You are employee at a Newspaper. A research organization offers to pay you well for some freelance work on the side for their PR Magazine. Q: would you do that?
  • You visit a research organization’s press conference. Your press pack contains tickets for a popular concert. Q: What would you do?
  • A funding organization sponsors a series of newspaper stories. They determine the subjects and will get to “read” your stories before they are published. The editor is out of budget and agrees. Q: Would you do that?
  • You write for a newspaper about a particular field. A research organization in that same field asks you to freelance as a paid communications adviser. Q: Would you do that?

The responses to all these questions, along with the rest of the survey results, can be found at  http://www.blurringlines.org/. But the organisers also took the opportunity to invite science journalists attending the World Conference in Helsinki to participate in a parliamentary-style debate to try to tease out some of the ethical issues at stake, and identify where individual journalists draw their ethical “red lines”, and why.

Tricky issues

That many journalists worry about the fate of independent journalism in the current climate was clear from the very high attendance at this session. The sizeable room was barely able to accommodate the format of the debate, which involved people standing on either side of the room depending on the position they took on a given question, and trying to convince the people opposite to join them.

Noticeable was the smugness of the small minority of those present who worked entirely in PR or communications jobs. Accustomed to being looked down upon by “real” journalists, they at least never pretend to be more independent than they are. As for the “real” journalists, they were pretty much split on every question, not about what would be the ethical thing to do, but whether compromising on the ethics might be necessary not just for them to earn a living but for the certain stories to be told at all.

An all-expenses trip to San Antonio to hear the latest on some new wonderdrug could be an easy one to turn down. But what if you are one of three reporters offered travel and accommodation to report on illegal logging in Borneo, or a well-organised community initiative to help AIDS patients in the favelas of Sao Paolo that could offer a model for other countries? And if you do choose to go and do the report, will your readers/listeners/viewers dismiss it as biased propaganda if you then admit that the trip was financed by an NGO involved in the initiative?

If you are offered a commission to report on an important story for which your experience makes you uniquely equipped, would you turn it down because you occasionally do work on behalf of an organisation that could be seen to have an interest in the story?

Can you avoid blurring the line between PR and journalism so long as you keep the two types of work entirely separate in your own head, or is the blurring in the eye of the reader/viewer/listener?

As the organisers of the survey point out in their concluding remarks, journalists are increasingly confronting these sorts of questions and are having to decide where they draw their own red lines:

“Responses to the eight cases, general remarks by many respondents and lots of personal communication from private and public discussions all highlight the fact that science journalists are entering this new phase while playing by many different rules, most of which made up by and for themselves as they go along.”

Whether this trend will ultimately harm the credibility of science journalism and, by extension, the credibility of science itself among the general public, is up for debate they add, as is the question of what various actors in the profession could or should do to prevent that from happening.

What do you think? Where would you draw your own red lines? Could a good guiding principle be:“If you can’t justify your actions to a meeting of your local NUJ branch, then don’t do it”?

Press the comment button and share your views.



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