Buried deep in our correspondence trail, Peter Vermij did indeed use the word “debate” when he invited me to his session, Wearing Many Hats? How to Preserve Independence (or Blurring Lines Between Science Journalism and Science PR), at the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki in late June.
Would I be a panelist, he asked. Could I present the “pragmatic” side of the story from a North American perspective? Sure, I said. Helsinki in June? Science Journalists from around the world? Pulla? Why not?
So, I reread Brian Vastag’s chapter on ethics in our book. Sent repeated questions to SciLance. Spoke to other colleagues. Considered my wardrobe. Wrote a talk. And then practiced the heck out of it. I forgot all mention of debate, though.
By the time the conference kicked off on Monday afternoon, I was ready. Then I had drinks with the other panelists. Turns out that our session was meant to be a debate in the tradition of the British House of Commons, Peter said. It was interactive. If set up well (meaning my colleague Kai Kupferschmidt and I introduced the issues in compelling and, preferably, inflammatory manner), the audience would be drawn in, participate, take sides. They would boo and cheer. The room could get heated, faces red.
During our conversation that evening—over the course of three venues and several drinks—it dawned on me: I was screwed. My prepared talk argued for a middle ground. It had gentle suggestions and tips for how science journalists could gracefully navigate the blurring line between journalism and PR, and thus earn a better living than by journalism alone.
I soon realized that Kai was being positioned as the saint—arguing the holy sanctity and purity of the untainted journalistic position. And I was being asked to play the whore—willing to write for anyone with the money and inclination to pay me.
I needed to rework my talk. Later that evening in my hotel room, I struggled. It’s not easy to argue a position that you don’t fully endorse. Would participants understand that this wasn’t a personal position but was argued in service of the event? Would I be branded forever more as the media whore with dubious ethics? Aack. Eventually, I sucked it up and modified my five-minute talk.
Kai and I did our jobs on Tuesday afternoon. The debate went well and the audience indeed participated. The session was a great success.
But in the end the session didn’t move beyond getting people talking and thinking. That was its goal, of course. But I wanted more. So did Kai. We wanted to offer tips for how to navigate the murky waters. We wanted to help solve this problem.
Kai later suggested that science journalists should include a statement about conflicts of interest on their websites for all to see. In fact, yesterday he informed me by email that he was in the process of rebuilding his own website to include a page on ethics.
Meanwhile, I’m sticking by the advice I offered in my original talk, which I’ll be sharing here on Monday.
Disclosure: Anne Sasso received funding from conference organizers to cover some of her costs to attend the WCSJ2013. The SciLance Writing Group also provided partial funding.
Photo credits: WCSJ2013 on flickr.