Writers’ conflicts of interest get airing at ScienceWriters2019

By Alla Katsnelson

At a late afternoon session at ScienceWriters2019, panelists dug into the vast and often-confusing conflicts-of-interest landscape. Freelancer Bryn Nelson and MIT Lincoln Laboratory science writer Anne McGovern set the stage by presenting highlights from a forthcoming guidance*, to be published by NASW in the next few months, on how to evaluate whether a situation might constitute a conflict of interest and if so, how to navigate it. Niddhi Subbaraman, science reporter at Buzzfeed News and Eva Emerson, editor-in-chief of Knowable magazine offered their thoughts on the importance of maintaining credibility, particularly with journalism under attack in the current political climate.

Sessions addressing conflicts of interest have been presented at multiple conferences over the past several years, yet writers have continually been seeking more guidance on the topic. An NASW working group was launched last year, after some initial research conducted in 2017 by an ad hoc committee consisting of Nelson and others reported to the Board on the lack of existing guidance. “The other thing we found is that the terrain is really shifting -- there are a lot more grey areas than before,” Nelson said.

To create the guidance document, working group members asked reporters, editors and ethicists to weigh in on 19 different scenarios that might raise conflicts of interest. About 40 volunteers have contributed to the document, and it is almost finished, Nelson said. He also asked the audience for a few more volunteers that could bring it to completion.

In the discussion, attendees raised several pointed questions about the challenges of navigating the murky waters of conflicts of interest with editors while maintaining their ability to earn money. Perhaps the biggest theme that emerged was disclosure, said McGovern – that is, always discuss potential conflicts with the editor. “Even if an editor doesn’t initiate the conversation, many contracts put it on you,” she noted. One expert cited in the guidance encourages people to imagine that the conflicting situation, whatever it may be, is disclosed to the world by your worst enemy. “Ultimately, you the writer are responsible for your reputation,” and for steering clear of conflicts of interest.

McGovern and Nelson discussed a handful of scenarios that had to do with funding and sponsorship, relationships with sources and what it means to remain an objective reporter. There is some grey area between not being ruled by your own opinion while reporting, yet still caring deeply about the subject,” Nelson said.

Subbaraman stressed that journalists have a very special job that offers the rare opportunity to inform and influence. “The currency we trade in is trust,” she said. Maintaining that trust means avoiding personal actions – for example, participating in demonstrations or contributing to campaigns – that might collide with journalistic work. “Now, more than any other time,” she said, “we should be especially mindful of ways in which our real or perceived conflicts of interest could blunt our work.”

Obvious conflicts of interest are usually about money, Emerson said; if you somehow financially stand to gain from a situation, then there’s going to be a conflict of interest in your writing about it. For example, she described a situation she knew of from many years ago when columnist who reviewed a product without disclosing to the editor that his brother owned the company that made it.

Emerson described several examples that came up with freelance writers who contributed stories to Knowable. One writer pitched a story about a scientist and disclosed a couple conversations into the assignment process that the scientist was a close friend. Ultimately, the story went forward, with the piece disclosing the relationship, but it required disclosure and discussion.

In another situation someone who had co-written a book with a scholar about a specific subject proposed a piece to Knowable on a very similar subject. “It was not really a financial conflict, but she had a really, really strong point of view in the book,” she said. Again, the magazine went ahead with the piece, but after a lot of discussion.

Emerson noted that reporters also need to be self-aware in thinking about whether and how biases more subtle than clear-cut conflicts of interest might be influencing their work. For example, a reporter might be extremely worried about rising sea levels, and that concern could come across in especially strong adjectives they use in story. “There’s a spectrum of bias,” she said.

Nelson said he hopes that writers will turn to the guidance document not for definitive guidance but more as a starting point to thinking about what questions to ask about a given potentially conflicting situation. He also said he hopes that the document will serve as a plea for editors and publications to clarify their positions on such matters, and that it will demonstrate how much ideas on conflicts of interest differ across editors and publications.

In the discussion, audience members noted that this variety of opinion can make discussing conflicts of interest with editors fraught. “For me this is a time bomb. If I have a conversation with one editor it may go really well, but if I have that same conversation with another editor it may suddenly have marked me off that publication’s stable of writers,” one writer said. “Then the advice to talk to your editor is a little bit loaded.”

Overall, it may be problematic for editors to be the gatekeepers of whether something constitutes a conflict or not, another audience member said. A given editor may be more lax on a particular type of conflict than an editor you work with down the line, or more lax than you would be. “We need to have more of a culture of thinking about the conflicts for yourself and your own personal reputation,” the commenter said.

*For transparency, I was a member of this working group.

Alla Katsnelson is a Massachusetts-based freelance science writer and editor and a recipient of a 2019 NASW Travel Fellowship. Follow her on Twitter @lalakat.

Nov. 16, 2019

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