Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild

Nailing colours to the mast – you’re either a journalist or a PR

There is an ongoing debate in science journalism — the question of whether you can write science PR for corporates or government and also write science journalism for media houses.

If you want some background, here’s an interesting piece in Nature and another blog post. While the IT industry learned about these blurred lines a long time ago, it would appear that science has not recognised the same pitfalls and mistakes. The links above show that this is a worldwide problem, and not just a South African one, but the size of the science-writing-scape in the country highlights the problem.

In South Africa, there are very few full-time jobs for science writers (I’d measure it at about half a dozen) and freelance science writers struggle. We don’t have the same blogging culture that the United States does; our science doesn’t have the same stature (something which I believe to be an unfair assumption) so it is difficult to pitch it to a foreign media house like New Scientist. So, very often, freelance science writers turn to PR to pay the bills.

The debate is this: can these freelancers still write and pitch stories to editors about the same companies or organisations that they have written PR for in the past?

I am nailing my colours to the mast: absolutely not. I often find myself asked to address workshops and conferences about science journalism, which makes sense since I am a journalist in the field with experience. But I cannot, under any circumstances, get paid to do it — they cannot give me money for my time.

For example, I will be helping to facilitate a workshop at the end of the year; it is held by Organisation X (it isn’t fair to name them and drag them into this). They offered to pay me for my time, but how can I accept that, knowing that I will definitely write about Organisation X in the future? If I write an expose about them doing some bad thing, I will be writing that with the knowledge that we had exchanged money in the past.

A slap-dash Twitter survey yielded interesting results: full-time journalists (most of whom are not science journalists) said it was completely unethical to wear both hats, while the communications and PR people said it was fine as long as the article was balanced.


Julian Rademeyer @julianrademeyer
@sarahemilywild Absolutely not. Massive conflict of interest. Newspaper should cut ties with the writer.

Phillip de Wet @phillipdewet
@sarahemilywild It shouldn’t even be a debate. No. Not without a cool-down period of five years or more.

Jason Norwood-Young @j_norwood_young
@sarahemilywild It’s clearly unethical. Major conflict of interest on journo side, access to privileged info on PR side. Why’s there debate?

Moyagabo Maake @momaake
No RT @sarahemilywild: Dear Twitter, can a science writer, who writes corporate PR, claim to be a journo & write abt same ppl for newspaper?

While PR people (or people who write PR part-time) say it’s fine:

Cosmas Butunyi @butunyi
@sarahemilywild By all means! As long as the journalistic piece is balanced, objective et al.

(Don’t follow as many PRs, so there isn’t as loud an opinion)

Very concerningly, members of a science journalists group that I’m a part of think it’s fine.

My question: as a reader, how can you trust that it is balanced? How do you know that there is not information that they chose not to use? (Through writing PR, writers are often exposed to the inner working of a company, and glean information that they wouldn’t know otherwise.) And, perhaps my biggest problem: by making readers ask these questions, you are bringing the entire field into disrepute and eroding confidence in it.

I’m setting up a science supplement at the Mail & Guardian, and while other people can convince themselves that it’s okay to wear two hats, they will never write for me.

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    • Call for Honesty

      When certain top young South African scientists consider that a reputable science PhD with research and publication in recognized scientific journals is the the minimum to claim the title of “scientist” then I would hope that science journalists would have more than just undergraduate studies in some science subjects.

      I am not a scientist but I could drive a truck through some of the logical and reasoning flaws in certain science articles I have read in this newspaper. I have found some simply a rehashed summary of a much longer work or article but without a critical assessment or evaluation. I often wonder if I am able to trash an article because of the way it has been written, how reliable are the scientific claims it makes?

    • Honesty is Valued

      It is that in order to be a commentator in sport one must have played the sport to understand it. I have also often heard that in order to coach a sport, one needs to have played it at the level one is coaching.

      I can think of an example, off the top of my head, of a famous and renowned commentator who never partook in a sport, and I can think of one of the most successful soccer coaches who never played the game seriously.

      One can not compare soccer to science. I get that.

      But the principle holds. While I agree, most certainly, that an unrelated undergraduate degree would make anyone nervous, let’s be realistic about this. A well-written, and considered article does not need a post-doctorate author. What it needs is an author who is proficient at the language s/he is writing in, a clear understanding of logic and reasoning and an understanding of the subject matter. That is what a writer is. The degreed and decorated experts are academics. And, frankly, non-language academics write with about as much flair as a sun-baked rock.

      I can tear reasoning holes the size of Jupiter through the articles of every single political analyst we have in this country. But that is what free media is about. It does not mean that they are unqualified to talk about politics in SA.

      Politics is not science. Yes. But Science journalism is not academics. I can not think of another way to portray a 200-page study in a newspaper other than to summarise it.

    • Baz

      Journalists. Their work related to a certain topic if published in any reputable mazagine or newspaper should be left uncensored giving them true ownership of their craft in writing or dealing with the current issue at present and not be edited in anyway. Before presenting your article, see that it is not too drawn out and keep to the facts, so the reader doesn’t lose interest in the subject matter. This could be the reason for an edited version and giving the story a totally different slant and misinterpretation giving the actual Journalist reason to be annoyed seeing the edited version.

    • Llewellyn Kriel

      Let mine be the dissenting voice. Based on 37 years in the media & PR (in-house & consultant) domestically & internationally I’ve worn numerous sometimes discordant hats & never once encountered any kind of conflict, ethical or otherwise.As long as you give your utmost professional service, the story trumps everything.

      To find conflict of the gravity you suggest, Sarah, is, in my opinion, more of an indictment on the person than on the action. It means I cannot distinguish right from wrong &, therefore, have to be quarantined from temptation. Of course, there is a very clear distinction when you are employed full-time by, say, Mail & Guardian (though most authorities argue that is a breach of your employment contract more than an ethical issue). If, as freelancer, I am contracted to “do write-ups for” the CSIR, I give them the best I can – Right, Bright & Tight – just as a lawyer, PR consultant or SHEQ advisor would. If two months down the track and still a freelancer compiling a supplement for M&G, I uncover a serious issue related to the CSIR, I take not prisoners & show no favour – the job is to tell the truth to the best of my ability (as would any lawyer, PR consultant or SHEQ advisor).

      Of course, all this is very clearly trumped should I, case by case, feel I cannot give my very best as editor or writer, my conscience compels me to walk away. But there is no blanket ban. Life is never that easy. There are 50 shades of grey.

    • Ngwenya

      Let’s start by defining journalism and PR, shall we? Because much of what used to be journalism is really now PR – as an editor, I would frequently see stories that I had received as press releases published without a single alteration (except for the addition of the words ‘staff reporter’) in major newspapers as well as in other magazines. Ask your average decent PR person about this – they tear their hair out over the laziness of reporters who require a story to be presented just right, with the right pics and everything – can’t be bothered to even pick up the phone and spend five minutes with a source. (Never mind a counter-position.)
      Journalists who are ‘pure’ by your lights (full-time employed) can be and often are biased – business journos who are so ’embedded’ in the biz world that they unwittingly see everything through a biz filter, for example. Their ethics have been overwhelmed by their day-to-day contacts, their social links, their unconscious acquirement of a business way of seeing. Does their ‘wearing of only one hat’ mean they are people of integrity? 25 years in the game has taught me to look closely at the integrity and ethics of each individual before making judgements.