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.

Journalists:

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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