Beware the double dip

Although it may be possible to survive as a freelance on straight journalism alone, most of us also take on other work as well, for universities, corporations, or research institutions. How strict must the dividing line be between the two? Is it ethical to work on both sides of the line simultaneously? If you've spent time as a corporate flack, will straight news editors think you are tainted forever? In this article, Jeanne Erdmann pursues these questions.

Six years ago, when I switched from bench scientist to full-time freelance writer, I vowed to be honest and fair. That vow has been difficult to keep, not because I am ethically challenged, but because I'm sometimes confused about what practices are considered out of bounds. Can I combine corporate/PR work with journalism in the same field? What if they are in different fields? Where are the boundaries? Is it like the tire guards at the exits to drive-in movies, where you can go one way, but if you try and come back, you're ripped to shreds? Are some avenues of freelance work permanently closed to me by the stain of PR and corporate involvement?

Could be.

Double-dipping Apparently I'm not the only person confused on this issue, since it's a frequent topic of discussion on NASW-freelance. For example, On July 17, 2003, Erik Ness asked whether writing a media guide for an environmental planning group working on community issues created "the appearance of impropriety," as he often works in the field of environmental journalism. John Gever invoked the one-way rule: the impropriety would come only if Ness intended to keep writing journalism in this field, with the biggest problem being taking money from an interest group in the field you cover. Although Ness took a pass on the work for other reasons, so-called "double dipping" — earning money from a source whom you someday may write about — is one of several issues freelancers can face. Gever ended his post by remarking that editors or readers may or may not care depending on the publication, a sentiment echoed by others in the discussion.

Special Access to Story Ideas Other issues also arise, and different freelances handle them differently. For example, if you write regularly for an academic institution's in-house magazine and a news outlet, do you pitch stories to your news client that you uncovered while reporting for the in-house magazine? No, said one writer who contacted me off-list and who wishes to remain anonymous. She will only pitch the story if she comes across the same information in a published paper or a press release, rather than through her work on the academic magazine. That policy keeps her in the same pool as other journalists with no special access to the scientists. "Some of my friends would say my policy regarding the academic client is too strict since these researchers are some of the best and brightest in their field and very productive too," she said in an email. "But I think being strict helps you avoid the slippery slope when things pop up later."

Getting Too Close to Sources Keeping corporate jobs separate from her news work was also behind Angie Roberts's post from March 3, 2004. Having just gotten a gig with a children's hospital foundation, she will no longer use physicians from that hospital as sources when reporting for a parenting magazine. Dan Ferber draws a slightly different line. On July 21, 2004, he wrote "I write for an alumni magazine, but I just turned down an assignment on someone I use regularly as a source in my news reporting. I think that's a one-way road, and I wasn't ready to give her up as a source. I also try to stay away from writing about someone in the same department as a regular source. However, I will use sources at this institution whom I haven't written about. That's as far as I'll go. Arbitrary? Somewhat, but that's what feels right to me."

Disclosure How much should the freelance disclose to the news editor about his or her other clients? This is perhaps one of the most sensitive areas for many writers. The same anonymous writer who won't pitch stories she's learned about in her academic work worries that full disclosure to her journalism editor might cost her a big chunk of work. For now, she keeps the work from the corporate client secret from the journalism client because she needs both. Although she frets over this decision, she said that she makes it her own responsibility to stay out of conflicts of interest. She also said that if any editor were to ask about her corporate client she would not lie about the work. Ferber's advice is, "Just avoid conflicts of interest, or disclose them. I believe that until a magazine pays me a full-time salary and benefits, it's none of their business what I do when I'm not writing for them. Despite that, I do try to be above board with people because that's how I'd want to be treated. Do you do that alum mag work and not tell them, which is completely within your rights? Or do you tell them? Tough call."

A "Duplicitous Game" Disclosure of financial relationships that affect the story at hand is another matter, though. Some writers practice this more slippery form of double-dipping: selling their services to, for example, a drug company and a medical publication on the same story. Typically, the writer takes a fee from a drug company to write a story about a corporate study presented at a medical conference, on the condition the writer pitch it to a medical trade magazine. The writer then takes a fee from the magazine for the story. "The drug company knows the writer is playing this duplicitous game, but the magazine editor may not," notes Boyce Rensberger, director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT. This type of work has been called "whoring" by some on the freelance list. Virtually all contributors agreed that at a minimum, the editor must be told of the relationship with the company. Many think this doesn't go far enough, and that the writer should insist that the story itself carry a disclosure, since it's the only way to ensure that the reader is informed of the conflict. Others think that as long as the editor knows, that's enough. Some publications have a policy expressly forbidding this type of relationship, and violating it is grounds for barring the freelance from writing for the publication again.

It Could be PR Work for God But back to the grey zones. I'd contacted Rensberger in the first place because I was trying to trace a comment attributed to him regarding the NIH. I'd heard that he told a group of writers that if they'd written for an NIH in-house magazine, they couldn't cover the NIH as a journalist. The implications are enormous for some freelances, since there are numerous in-house NIH publications on the one hand, and a huge fraction of medical research is funded by NIH on the other.

Rensberger said he honestly could not remember whether he'd made that remark and couldn't accept or reject it without knowing more facts. But he did say that most of us, himself included, agree that the NIH is a largely benign organization. But still, he said, it is not so benign if a writer gets a paid assignment from the NIH. Then that writer could not claim to be independent from the NIH nor claim to be free from an apparent conflict of interest.

"In other words," he wrote in an email, "this writer would not have the kind of journalistic independence I would want in a reporter covering NIH for any publication of mine." In that sense, Rensberger argued, NIH is not that different from a corporate client. "If Joe Blow had written for Monsanto's house organ and been paid by Monsanto, and you were an editor of a general circulation newspaper who wanted a story about Monsanto, would you prefer to hire Joe or Jill, who has never taken a dime from Monsanto?"

"It could be PR work for God. It doesn't matter how good or bad the client is. The issue is whether someone unfamiliar with the people and the organizations might suspect a conflict of interest.

"This is a very tricky area, one subject to a lot of debate," he acknowledged, but said that some freelances he knows manage to keep PR and journalism clients "scrupulously separate."

How Long Does the Line Last? So, according to Rensberger, there's a clear line the would-be journalist must not cross. But how long does the line last? Does it hurt one's chances to be a journalist if he or she has done corporate work at some time in the past? "I think it depends on how long ago one did the PR and whether the writer wants to do journalism covering the organization for which he or she did PR or PIO work," said Rensberger in a subsequent email. Rensberger said that the cases should be judged individually and gave three examples: — "If a writer had done freelance PR work for Acme Products but, a week later, says he has quit PR and is now a journalist, would I hire that person to cover Acme Products? No." — "What if the Acme work was three years ago and the writer has been a journalist ever since. Maybe, but probably not." — "What if the Acme work was three years ago and the writer has been a good journalist ever since and wants to cover Omega Industries, which is not a competitor of Acme? Yes, I think that would be okay."

Nonetheless, some publications go even further. Among the most stringent is Technology Review, whose author guidelines state:

To avoid both real and perceived conflicts of interest, we don't generally commission articles from writers who are actively engaged in non-journalistic work in any field of technology. This includes public relations, marketing, consulting, speechwriting, and white-paper writing. What's more, we ask that freelancers tell us about any such work they do in any field. Finally, freelancers should inform us about any other potential financial conflicts with the story in accordance with Technology Review's ethics statement. The editors will evaluate on a case-by-case basis whether a conflict exists.

Does this magazine go too far? Dan Ferber noted that this publication has one of the strictest policies out there, and freelance writers have indeed run afoul of it. "I think it's silly to say you can't work for a house organ, as if that sullies your journalistic objectivity for all time," said Ferber.

Rensberger suggested that one way to combine PR work and journalism would be to combine unrelated fields. For example, a writer could do PR for a drug company and cover cosmology as straight journalism, although the problems in this solution are not trivial — one may have to develop expertise in two fields, but then limit one's involvement in each to a single type of work.

Jeanne Erdmann is a freelance science and medical writer in rural Missouri who says she "loves sharing morning moos with the herd next door."

February 3, 2006

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