Just a few weeks after I happily was named a science writer at the AP, a pharmaceutical company called to tell me that it was planning a conference that I should cover. "Tell me more," I said. "It's in Geneva," the pharma publicist said, "and we'll pay your way there and back, put you up in a hotel, and feed you. And all you have to do is go to the conference." Or words to that effect.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, you know what I mean? I could have taken the junket, quit the AP, and launched myself into a glamorous world of travel and writing to promote the products of the pharmaceutical industry. Instead, I opted for long hours and a subsistence income. (The income has grown a bit over the years, but the hours don't seem to be any shorter.)
Pharma's offer was what's known, technically, as a junket. It wanted to pay me to write favorable stuff.
That's what seems to be happening with a couple of new European science journalism awards. Instead of offering cash awards to writers to promote good journalism, these awards offer writers junkets to promote the interests of the groups making the awards. The novelty here is that the junkets are dressed up as writing contests.
Earlier this year, The
European Astronomy Society European Southern Observatory announced "a new journalism competition to capture and promote inspirational coverage of European astronomy." We're already on shaky ground; prizes are supposed to encourage good journalism, not inspirational coverage of somebody's pet project. And, it continued, "The prize is the ultimate for any astronomy enthusiast — a trip to the world’s most advanced optical instrument: the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope in Chile." The winners are not required to write about the Chilean 'scope. But...it made me think of those pitches for time-share condos--you can walk away, but it isn't easy.
The award is transparently self-serving, and it ought to be avoided. Reporters who want to go to Chile should raise the money some other way.
Another new award goes further--it also offers a trip, but it requires the winner to write a story about the trip. The Institute of Physics and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, both apparently based in London, are offering an Award for Physics Journalism. The winner "will be offered an expenses-paid visit to Japan, to inspect major science facilities including the T2K neutrino experiment amongst others," the groups say. And he or she "will be required to produce at least one news article or feature arising from the prize trip to Japan, for publication in Physics World."
And, as the late-night pitchmen say, "There's more!" Additional prize offerings "may be added" prior to the closing date, the announcement said.
I'd stay away from this one, too. Or, if you do decide to apply and you win, tell 'em you won't accept the economy air fare; you want to travel first class.