At the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki in June, I participated in a debate where I took an extreme position of taking money for any writing job. My real position is far more nuanced, and if the session format had been different, here’s the more balanced view I would have presented.
Today, I’m arguing the position that a writer has to eat. We’ve got bills to pay. Cars that need new brakes. And kids to put through school. You know, lifestyles to maintain.
We’re in this field because we love it, of course. But we’re also in it to make a living.
The reality is that you can make two to three times more in PR projects than in comparable journalism projects. Given the current economic landscape, I think that freelance science writers almost HAVE to combine journalism work with other types of writing in order to make a decent living—unless, of course, you’re independently wealthy, just won the lottery, or live in your parents’ basement.
I also think that it is possible to successfully combine the two but only if you maintain a clear line that separates them. The good news is that we each get to draw our own line.
There are two things that I think may be contributing to the line blurring that Peter describes. One is particular to science writers. The other reflects the broader industry of journalism.
Science writers come to the field from two main directions: from a background in journalism or one in science. If you’ve been through J-school, your profs have indoctrinated you into the mindset of “the separation of church and state,” which means that you are very cognizant of potential conflicts of interest or even the appearance of a conflict of interest and usually will not even consider venturing to the “dark side” of writing to promote someone else’s story or point of view.
If you draw a salary as a staffer – as almost all journalism professors did, back in the days when journalism jobs were plentiful – then that’s fine. If you want to survive as a freelancer in today’s market, though, you’ll have to relax a bit and learn to juggle. And do it gracefully enough that you don’t get into trouble.
If you come into this field from the science side, you haven’t had that training and often may not realize the potential pitfalls in writing a press release for a group on campus or writing a magazine story on the guys in the lab next door. That’s pretty normal. But write about science long enough and your editors and peers will quickly clue you in to the need to strengthen your objectivity.
The other complicating factor—and this in my opinion is the bigger challenge—is that there are no clear rules for where to draw the line.
Sure, if you work for the New York Times, you’ll be handed their 54-page booklet on ethics that describes exactly what you can and cannot do. It’s reassuringly black and white. Other large newspapers have similar documents.
Of course, it’s easy to follow strict rules when you’re earning a good salary, have benefits and enjoy a relative degree of stability. It’s another thing entirely in the freelance world. Step outside the world of newspaper journalism and the rules—if there are any—seem highly arbitrary.
This has led many of my North American freelance colleagues to make up their own rules which go something like this: If I want to do journalism on a particular field, say oceanography, I will not do PR work on anything that relates to that field.
You look at your career goals, decide what interests you and then essentially write off entire fields that might not be interesting to you in journalism but might be very lucrative for PR.
If the venn diagram of your freelance work looks like this:
You’re in good shape. You are safeguarding your reputation and maintaining journalistic integrity.
You make choices. You compartmentalize. You draw the line where you want to draw it. And then you don’t walk back and forth across that line.
Here’s another way to look at it. Ask yourself, who are the sources?
As long as potential sources fall clearly into the larger spaces of those circles, you’re good to go. When they’re located in the intersecting zones, you need to be concerned. If say a person is both a personal friend and a potential source, you need to think twice.
If you have any questions about your line with respect to a particular journalism assignment, or even the broader scope of your career, discuss it with your editor. When in doubt, the best policy is to disclose, disclose, disclose.
Many editors appreciate hearing about potential conflicts of interest at the beginning of an assignment. They will often work with you to resolve them. Sometimes, even though they may love you and your pitch, they may feel that your connection to a source is too close for comfort and decide to pass on the idea. If you’ve given them a heads-up at the beginning of the conversation, they’re likely to invite you to pitch again. Neglect to tell them about it and it could very well be the last story you ever do for that editor or that publication. Let’s face it, the world of science journalism is just too small for that.
Finally, these choices are not death sentences. The thing about the line is that even though you must respect it, you can redraw it. It’s not forever. If you’ve been doing PR in a field and then change your mind and want to start covering it journalistically, it’s possible. There might be a cooling-off period, during which you do neither. But once one or two years have passed, check with editors and start pitching. Some venues might not touch you. That’s fine. Others will welcome your inside perspective.
Given the lack of clear industry rules, all we can do as freelancers is make our own. Editors will tell us pretty quickly if we’ve drawn a reasonable line or not. In this way, I think we can succeed and even prosper by wearing both PR and journalist hats.
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 from WCSJ2013 on flickr. PowerPoint slides by Anne Sasso