Junkets masquerading as prizes

To avoid conflicts of interest, read the fine print

With dwindling support for travel in most newsrooms, journalists may be tempted to apply for one of the many prizes or programs that offer the chance to get out of the office and visit a new destination—but buyer beware.

The Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn wrote a series of three posts about the risks associated with some of these opportunities, which require journalists to write articles about projects being run by the trip’s sponsors. Such an arrangement presents a clear conflict of interest for the reporter, he wrote:

A junket, in the way journalists think of it, is a reporting trip paid for by the people or organization being covered. The problem with this is immediately apparent. If a reporter travels to a research project using his own resources, he or she is free to write whatever story develops, whether it’s complimentary or critical. But a reporter who is a guest of the research project, being housed and fed by the hosts, could find it difficult to write a critical story.

In his first post, Raeburn scrutinized two European awards that pose a problem for recipients. One is a physics prize offered by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), a UK government body, and the independent Institute of Physics (IOP). The winner gets an all-expenses-paid visit to Japan “to inspect major science facilities including the T2K neutrino experiment,” but is “required to produce at least one news article or feature arising from the prize trip to Japan, for publication in Physics World,” the IOP’s membership magazine.

The other award is an astronomy prize run by the STFC and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), an intergovernmental organization, in conjunction with the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) and the Royal Astronomical Society, both of which are independent. The winner receives an all-expenses-paid trip to ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The winner is not required to write about the telescope, but it’s na├»ve to think a journalist would go all that way to do nothing.

“The award is transparently self-serving, and it ought to be avoided,” Raeburn argued. “Reporters who want to go to Chile should raise the money some other way.”

Raeburn gave members of the STFC and ABSW a chance to respond to his criticism in his second post, where they argued that such prizes are a customary way to overcome the lack of support for overseas science coverage, and that the trips’ sponsors don’t exert any editorial control over participating journalists. But those excuses didn’t satisfy Raeburn, and his third post revealed how even trips that seem to come with no strings attached can ensnare journalists a circle of conflict.

It turned out that the astronomy prize he had warned about went to Katia Moskvitch of the BBC, who had taken a two-month leave from the network to work as a communications intern at the ESO. After she left the internship, she wrote a story for the BBC about the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, which later won the prize. To be clear: “The ESO prize was awarded by a panel including ESO judges to a former ESO journalist-in-residence who wrote about the ESO,” wrote Raeburn, rightly aghast.

The contest rules prohibited employees of the ESO from entering the competition, but Moskvitch left her internship just before going off to report her prize-winning story. An ESO representative told Raeburn that put in her the clear, and a BBC representative told him that Moskvitch’s prize-winning article “was produced in accordance with” its editorial guidelines and included a note disclosing her work with the ESO. Still, any reasonable observer would question the impartiality of both the story and the prize. As Raeburn put it:

Instead of offering cash awards to writers to promote good journalism, these awards offer writers junkets to promote the interests of the groups making the awards. The novelty here is that the junkets are dressed up as writing contests.

Scores of similar contests abound, not only in Europe, but in the United States as well. Both the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers have webpages that list a variety of opportunities (awards, fellowships, etc.), and it’s hard to tell which are ethically compromising and which aren’t—indeed, there is a bewildering number of shades of grey.

There is the Kyoto Prize Journalism Fellowship, sponsored by Point Loma Nazarene University and the Kyoto Symposium Organization. It includes an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan to cover the award ceremony (which honors contributions to science and arts) and “subsequent lecture and workshops,” but the application states that:

Upon return from Kyoto or while on site, the selected fellow is expected to create a publicly-accessible product such as an article, story, essay, blog, video, or recap on the Kyoto Prize Award Ceremony, the work of an individual Kyoto Prize laureate or the fellowship experience. All content produced should be submitted to Point Loma Nazarene University and the Kyoto Symposium Organization upon completion for the Fellowship Archives and for public purposes.

As with the European physics prize described above, that should be an obvious deal-breaker. But what about the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Journalism Fellowship, which provides journalists with an all-expenses-paid trip to its facility in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to learn about climate change, severe weather, and energy technologies. Like the astronomy prize described above, there’s no reporting requirement, but even though it’s an educational fellowship rather than an award contest, one could see how the issue that arose with ESO—selecting past interns or people who’ve written favorably about the organization—could happen there as well. The same could be said about science journalism fellowships at the Marine Biological Laboratory or the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, both of which bring participants to their facilities on Cape Cod.

But these are highly respected programs through which many well-regarded and principled journalists have passed, and unlike the ESO trip described above, they’re geared toward science training and education rather than witnessing or observing science in action. Still, it’s reassuring when sponsors make that explicit. The National Tropical Botanical Garden Environmental Journalism Fellowship, which provides an all-inclusive trip to Hawaii, states on its website, for instance, that “the focus of the fellowship is immersion and not advocacy… the goal of the program is not to provide source material for current news stories.”

Many programs, such as USC Annenberg’s California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship and the National Science Foundation’s US Antarctic Program, ask journalists to submit proposals for reporting projects based on the trips and training that the program will finance. It’s a valuable way to support journalism in a time of tight budgets, but again, it’s nice when benefactors like the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships For Mental Health Journalism explicitly state that “the fellowship encourages total journalistic independence and freedom and only requires that the fellows report accurately.”

It’s great that there are so many travel opportunities available to journalists right now, but when somebody else is footing the bill it’s important that they know what they’re getting into. Training, education, and grant support for projects are fine, as long as there are no strings attached, but there are also a lot of junkets out there masquerading as prizes or fellowships that entangle journalists in conflicts of interest. These should be avoided at all costs, even if it means another day in the office.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , ,