I recently returned from a week in Norway’s Arctic Circle city of Tromso, where I attended an annual conference called Arctic Frontiers. This was my second time attending. The five-day event focused on the human health, environmental and economic impacts of a thawing Arctic. I learned a lot, met many scientists and journalists from around the world, generated article assignments and future story ideas, ate tons of Norwegian salmon, and even witnessed the Northern Lights for the first time. What’s not to like about that?
Despite the many upsides of attending the conference, as the week progressed I began to feel more tainted and conflicted. That’s because it was a junket of sorts. The Norwegian government, brimming over in riches from its oil and gas industry, paid for several international journalists to attend the conference. No doubt the conference organizers, the corporate sponsors and the Norwegian government itself wanted to raise the exposure of the annual conference, which otherwise may not have received much media attention outside of Norway.
Granted, it was a classy, no-strings-attached offer. No one suggested that I write any articles about Norway or the conference or anything else. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. It was a meaty enough conference about a topic I write and care about, and I wanted to produce print and radio work from it. And I figured that no editor was going to pay my way to attend. In case I needed another excuse to accept the junket, it was a chance to escape the isolating, often lonely, day-to-day life as a freelancer and explore a slice of the world. (I’m inspired by Michelle Nijhuis‘ (bio) inspiring blog post about freelancing: My One-woman Bucket Drum Band.)
So, why do I still feel a little conflicted about having accepted the junket, even as I await an edit of my first article stemming from the conference? In part because I know that the conference organizers, through the Norwegian government, bought media exposure, even if they didn’t ask for articles. The other reason is that I found myself at times wanting to act charming toward the conference organizers to increase my chances of being invited again. Other times I avoided them so as not to start behaving solicitously.
I appreciate, maybe even more so now, why some mainstream news organizations, such as the New York Times, The Economist and National Public Radio, still will not accept stories or pitches from staff or freelance journalists if any organization with a stake in the outcome of the story pays the reporter’s trip (or any piece of it). It’s media ethics 101: At the very least, accepting such money can give the perception that there’s a conflict of interest. That said, I disclosed my financial arrangement when I pitched stories related to the conference to a couple magazines. They didn’t care, especially since I wasn’t planning to write anything glowing about Norway or the conference itself.
Would I do it again? Probably, at least if I felt confident that the conference or other event was newsworthy enough on its own. Maybe I’m just filling the space between my ears with rationalizations. So now I ask you, what would you do? Am I sleazy? Or am I naïve, old-fashioned? Please share any tips or lessons learned from your own experience defining, accepting, or rejecting, junkets.
Photo courtesy of Susan Moran