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 naïve 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.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.