Navigating Conflicts of Interest

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Some of Melinda Wenner Moyer’s first features may not be as widely recognized as her award-winning stories in Scientific American or Slate. Instead, they can be found in Pitt Med, the quarterly magazine of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. As she covered topics like immunotherapy for type 1 diabetes and engineered heart tissue for the institutional publication, Moyer says she honed her narrative voice and learned to infuse her writing with color. And when she was trying to break into high-profile magazines, she used her clips from Pitt Med and other institutions to showcase her talents. “I don’t know whether I could have the success I have now if it hadn’t been for taking on that kind of work in some ways,” she says. “It really opened some doors.”

However, Moyer says she eventually shifted away from writing for Pitt Med or any other institutional publication. She had set up boundaries for herself: In her journalistic work, she avoided covering researchers she’d written about for these magazines, but she didn’t want to keep adding to this list. “I realized that the more things that I took on that were not journalistic, the more limiting that would be,” she says. All her work now comes from journalism—a decision she admits not every freelancer can afford to make.

Freelance science writers, who comprise a substantial portion of the field, can find it tough to make a living only from journalism when pay rates have long been stagnant at best. Many journalists combine journalism with work for institutional clients, including corporations, universities, hospitals and medical centers, scientific societies, and other nonprofits. But these gigs might pose conflicts in the long run should journalists want to use representatives of those organizations as sources for journalistic stories.

Without formal guidelines that address conflicts of interest (COIs) in detail, freelance journalists and their editors are typically left to navigate tricky ethical situations on their own. “It’s hard,” Moyer says, “because sometimes you really don’t know what’s right, and you can ask five people, and they’ll give you five different opinions.”

Some editors may balk at even the potential for conflicts, making some freelancers hesitant to disclose their non-journalistic work publicly. (Several writers declined to be interviewed for this story for this reason.) Like Moyer, other writers avoid non-journalistic work entirely. Freelance health care reporter Cat Ferguson stopped doing work for institutional clients when she started taking on more investigative projects—though she says she still relies on her partner for income stability. She wanted to have the freedom to hold any institution accountable in her reporting, she says. “What if I ever had to use any of these people as sources? What if I ever had to write critically about their work?”

That said, many freelancers do manage to mix journalism with other work without crossing the line, says Andrew Seaman, chair of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). But the way they structure their work must be carefully thought-out. This includes establishing boundaries between the topics they cover and sources they use for each type of work to minimize the potential for COIs. (It’s probably OK, for example, to report on quantum computing if all your non-journalism work is for drug firms.) It’s also crucial to make full transparency about institutional work part of any exchange with editors, and to do so very early in the process. “I don’t think there’s necessarily a perfect answer, but I think if you do your homework you can come to a good decision,” Seaman says.


Fuzzy Guidance

Writers and their editors usually end up relying on their gut instincts when these situations arise because guidelines in the field are largely lacking. Professional organizations have ethical and professional guidelines that address some situations, but they don’t provide guidance in granular detail. And publications’ editorial policies often don’t account for freelancers with a diverse clientele.

For example, the anthropology-focused outlet Sapiens doesn’t currently have specific editorial policies about these scenarios, according to managing editor Amanda Mascarelli. (The digital magazine’s contract with freelancers does require them to disclose COIs.) But Mascarelli says she’s open to working with writers who do both journalistic and institutional work, especially given today’s freelancing economy. “I do think you can do both, if you’re careful and if you’re sensitive to the lines,” she says.

Still, Mascarelli notes that editors grapple with how to handle possible COIs. And these situations come up frequently, Nature’s acting chief news and features editor Rich Monastersky said in an email. “We are currently assessing our ethics policy to make it more comprehensive and clear about some of [these] issues,” he said.

But hard-and-fast rules aren’t necessarily feasible, says National Geographic senior science editor Victoria Jaggard. Instead, evaluating possible COIs boils down to a series of individual judgement calls, she says. For example, Jaggard avoids working with writers who also write for advocacy groups with clear agendas. But she says she’d have less hesitation about freelancers who work for more neutral clients—such as a scientific organization with a broader goal of advancing science—provided that the stories they pitch don’t overlap too much with their other work.

“The reality of it is that it’s always kind of fuzzy, and you have to sort of go with your gut and judge everything on a case-by-case basis,” she says. (National Geographic also doesn’t address these issues with official policies.) When Jaggard has doubts, she talks to her coworkers, who generally follow the same rules of thumb as her, she says.

The SPJ Code of Ethics covers COIs very broadly, stating that journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” Other professional organizations embrace this stance. For example, the Association of Health Care Journalists’ statement of principles encourages journalists to be careful about any agreements which might limit their editorial independence. And the National Association of Science Writers’ code of ethics states that “science writers should attempt to avoid any potential conflict of interest with an assignment, financial or otherwise.”

To improve upon this thin guidance, NASW is developing resources to help writers, editors, and publishers address questions of COIs. “It seems that right now, a lot of it is done on a case-by-case basis,” says NASW board member Jill Sakai. “It leaves a lot of the responsibility—both for disclosure and also potentially responsibility for any consequences that may arise—on the writer themselves.”


Define Boundaries

So writers often have to figure out on their own how to balance different clients. The key to avoiding entanglements in COIs, Seaman says, is maintaining boundaries. Some journalists carefully separate their sources, refraining from reporting on a particular institution or group of researchers they’ve worked for or written about in a non-journalistic capacity. Others put up walls between the topics they cover.

Drawing from different source pools is particularly important to Sakai, who left her job as communications director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Office of Sustainability last year to become a full-time freelance science writer and editor. (Previously, Sakai was a science writer for UW–Madison’s University Communications office.) Sakai treats all of UW–Madison as off limits for journalistic stories and sources. Because researchers often collaborate across departments, she says, “it gets sticky really fast. It seems like it’s just easiest to try to draw the largest possible circle around those potential conflicts.”

Freelance science journalist Roberta Kwok similarly avoids stories that focus on research from Yale University and Northwestern University because she writes for their management schools’ magazines. She notes, though, that she would consider using a secondary source from another department at either institution, but she hasn’t yet found a good enough reason to do so. “If they’re a secondary source and it seems like they’re not that important, then why not just find someone else?” she says.

By contrast, freelance science writer and editor Bruce Lieberman says separating even primary sources doesn’t have to be a strict rule. Lieberman worked as a contract writer for the Kavli Foundation for a few years, but he says he’s comfortable including Kavli-supported scientists in a journalistic story if they are particularly relevant. “As long as you’re aware of that vulnerability, then you can kind of check yourself when you’re doing your journalism assignments,” he says.

Important separations also include beats, not just sources, Jaggard says. “Say, for instance, if you’re going to be working for a trade publication about biomedicine, I would prefer you write for [National Geographic] about astrophysics,” she says.

Shannon Brescher Shea, senior writer and editor for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, is careful to avoid any overlap with her job’s beat when she does freelance journalism on the side. (She writes for media outlets about parenting and green living.) “In some ways it’s more straightforward as a full-time PIO because I can say this is my day job and this is my not–day job, and I can separate them very clearly.” In fact, when she attended a pitch session at the week-long Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop last May, Shea says she was one of a few PIOs whose idea wasn’t rejected. She pitched a story about gardening with kids. “That’s about as far as you can get from particle physics,” she says.

Kwok also separates her journalistic and institutional beats, but she acknowledges that some of these boundaries are gray. For example, since she writes for university management schools, does that mean all social science topics, such as economics, are a no-go? For a while this question didn’t come up, but then she got an assignment from Nature to write about science’s gig economy. Kwok brought the possible COI up to her editor, who wasn’t concerned, as long as the story’s sources didn’t come from Yale or Northwestern.

Defining a personal set of rules up front is important, says Kwok, especially since an editor’s standards could be looser than your own. Decide whether an assignment follows your own ethical guidelines first, and then discuss any potential COIs with your editor, she says. “You can’t just always rely on editors to make that call for you.”


Full Disclosure

In addition to following carefully placed boundaries, the most important thing freelancers should do is disclose any relationships that might give even the appearance of a conflict, editors say. “The best time to disclose is always the very first time you speak to me as an editor,” Jaggard says. Mascarelli also wants to hear about a possible COI right in the pitch. At Sapiens, pitches are put into a queue and then reviewed by the editorial team. Knowing about a potential issue up front prevents unnecessary time wasted.

Kwok’s strategy is the epitome of full disclosure. When pitching a new outlet, she includes a link to a meticulously organized spreadsheet listing potential COIs in detail—including descriptions of each non-journalistic client she’s worked for, her political activity, and her donations to organizations. “Sometimes I worry that I’m sending them too much information and that it’s overwhelming, but it’s all in the name of transparency, so that everything’s up front.”

In addition, Kwok lists all of her work on her website, noting that she doesn’t want to seem like she’s trying to hide anything. Her site even includes a specific conflict of interest statement about her corporate clients. Lieberman similarly uses his website as a storehouse for all of his work, clearly categorized by type of assignment, journalistic and otherwise. This way, editors can easily learn about his other work, he says.

Total transparency is key, Sakai says, even though learning about institutional assignments may lead some editors to shy away from working with a writer. Making a mix of clients work is a matter of finding those who are more open and willing to discuss the proper boundaries to maintain. “This is an area that still is a very active area of thought for me, especially being relatively new to that transition from working for an institution to being a full-time freelancer,” Sakai says. “It’s something that I think about a lot, and it will color how I chart my career.”


(Editors’ notes: (1) Freelance journalists and editors discussed the tangles of COIs last October at the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco. Read a summary of that discussion here. (2) TON co-founder and editor-in-chief Siri Carpenter is vice president of the National Association of Science Writers. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the positions or policies of NASW.)


Rachel Zamzow
Rachel Zamzow Courtesy of Rachel Zamzow

Rachel Zamzow is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is a freelance science writer based in Waco, Texas. The brain is what makes her tick, so most of her stories have a psychology or neuroscience slant. But she’s always interested in anything new and exciting science has to offer. She’s written for a variety of publications, including the award-winning autism research news site Spectrum and The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she was a 2014 AAAS Mass Media Fellow. She tweets @RachelZamzow.

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