My post last week on what I thought were dubious European science-writing prizes has generated some interesting comments regarding press junkets. Apparently this is a more widespread problem than I had suspected.
A junket, in the way journalists think of it, is a reporting trip paid for by the people or organization being covered. The problem with this is immediately apparent. If a reporter travels to a research project using his own resources, he or she is free to write whatever story develops, whether it's complimentary or critical. But a reporter who is a guest of the research project, being housed and fed by the hosts, could find it difficult to write a critical story. It would be a little like staying at a friend's beach house and complaining about the food or the mattress; we're uncomfortable about it, so we usually don't do it.
The two European prizes I wrote about offer, as prizes, paid reporting trips to particular research projects. Junkets. I suggested that was a bad idea, and that reporters ought to avoid them.
Terry O'Connor is, according to his LinkedIn page, the director of communications at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which is associated with the journalism prizes. He tweeted (@rebelandwolf) that the prize "is recognition of good journalism, not 'prostitution'- and there's no editorial control over end result." I believe him when he says there is no editorial control over the final product, but that's beside the point. The issue is whether a reporter would feel free to complain about the food, the mattress–or the science–on a paid-for trip.
Martin Ince commented on my post. He identified himself as the Association of British Science Writers executive member who represented the association on the judging panel of the physics award I described in my previous post. (I did not know at the time that the British science writers were involved with the award.) The prize for that award is "an expenses-paid trip to Japan to inspect major science facilities," and "the winner will be required to produce at least one news article or feature arising from the prize trip to Japan, for publication in Physics World."
Here are excerpts from Ince's comment:
The real issue with support of this type is that no professional journalist would ever spend a week (say) going to Japan without writing about it. The backers of the awards know this…and there is probably no need to spell it out…
STFC is the UK end of various international collaborations including CERN and ESO. It is routine for it to spend money on flying journalists to these places and (more importantly for ESO than for CERN) on organising the logistics for the visit. If you think this gets them a soft ride in the media, you need only look at the origin of STFC. It was set up after a parliamentary and media storm forced the government to kill off its predecessor PPARC, which had done the same.
Ince seems to agree with me that these trips are problematic, but then defends the practice, noting that it does not get the organizations "a soft ride in the media." That may be true, but the conflict of interest still stands: The reporter's allegiance to readers conflicts with the financial relationship with the scientific groups.
Maryn McKenna replied to my original post with a comment about invitations she's received to a German science conference called Falling Walls. She quoted from the email she received last year:
The fellowship includes travel costs (air and hotel), a ticket to the conference and the welcome reception as well as the festive dinner. The only condition: we would like you to blog on the Falling Walls blog (will be on Nature.com) about the conference.
She said she didn't consider attending. "Against my personal ethical standards — others' mileage may vary."
I sent my post to James C. Cornell, president of the International Science Writers Association, and I asked for his perspective. He told me in an email that the prizes are "a new twist on a long tradition in Europe–the all-expenses-paid press tour." It's the result of press traditions that are different in Europe, he said, but also in part a reflection of economic realities in Europe, where reporters find it difficult to raise money for reporting trips. At one European science writers' meeting, he said, the debate "centered not on whether one should accept such subsidies, but whether it was 'ethical' to write negative things about one's sponsors."
That makes my point better than I could have made it myself. Reporters who take these trips are worried mainly about whether it's "ethical" to complain about the food.