To go or not to go: the ethics of writers accepting travel expenses

by Nicola Temple | February 1, 2013

Is it ethical for a science writer to accept funds from a research institution to follow researchers into the field? This is the question I recently posed to my peers on a science writer’s forum. It generated considerable discussion with both pros and cons well represented and argued.

Of course, the reason I posed the question is because a “friend” of mine has been presented with an opportunity. It’s a chance to travel to a remote area of the world to witness first hand the challenges of working in remote locations, to experience the highs and lows of conducting research, and to tell a compelling and engaging science story.

However, as I have learned, there are a number of magazines and outlets that have very strict rules about accepting stories from writers that have had their expenses covered by any of the organisations involved in the research. This presents a challenge.

The best stories don’t come from the comfort of a swivel chair

I once worked with researchers on the west coast of Canada who analysed wolf faeces to determine how much of their diet was derived from the marine environment. The findings are interesting and present a good news story. However, there is a lot that the press release on EurekAlert doesn’t tell you. For instance, the fact that each sample was collected by walking through tremendously challenging terrain, often in the pouring rain, with the knowledge that a grizzly bear could be just around the corner. Or that each sample was painstakingly collected using popsicle sticks and that one enthusiastic volunteer spent an entire day picking up goose droppings in error. A phone interview with the principal investigators will never convey the chill that runs down your spine when you hear a pack of wolves call in the wild, or the delight in watching pups learning to fish salmon from the stream. That is a depth that can only be obtained from first hand experience.

Finding opportunities

So how do freelancers happen upon these opportunities without refinancing their house and selling their first born (which I would have done willingly the other day by the way – the little terror)?

I think it’s a balance of making things happen yourself (I’m flying to AAAS in Boston later this month on my own dime) and taking advantage of well-considered opportunities that may present themselves.

Proceed with integrity

Does the fact that a research institution paid your way into a wildly remote area affect your ability to report on the science? Will you fail to be thorough in your research and talk to independent experts because someone else paid for the sandwich that is soaking wet and squished at the bottom of your rucksack? I would hope not.

The most consistent advice on the forum in response to my question on ethics was to always be up front. Sage advice. Many media outlets do not have the same strict rules in terms of expenses, and will happily take a well-written, balanced story. In fact, even outlets that used to have strict rules are bending them in light of dwindling budgets and advertising income. The key, however, is to be up front right from the start. It’s a matter of trust and integrity.

So, after much discussion and contemplation, I think I shall advise my “friend” to explore the opportunity further. She needs to sort out the details of content control with her ethical compass in hand, but so long as no lines are crossed, then why not seize the opportunity. After all, it’s not an investigation piece, nor is it frought with controversy. It’s about cutting edge research in challenging terrain. Regardless of who foots the bill, I…oops, I mean my “friend”, will provide an honest and independent story that not only explains the science, but transports the reader into the field, alongside the researchers, and into a new and unfamiliar landscape.

For a great review of the pros and cons of journalists accepting travel expenses, see this article on the Association of British Science Writers’ website, and please add to this discussion by leaving a comment!

Comments

  1. Sherwin says:

    Looking good!

  2. Sherwin says:

    Really fantastic reflections. It seems like disclosing, or “showing your work” is a pretty central part of integrity in journalism these days.