Global Survey

A Global Survey on the Blurring Lines between Science Journalism and Science PR

In the run-up to a debate on ‘blurring lines between science journalism and science pr’ at the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki, a global survey was held.

The survey served a number of purposes:

  • Collect basic information from science journalists all over the world about their employment and income situation.
  • Collect information on combinations of work for and income from independent news media and other science-related actors, including research (funding) organizations, NGO/non-profits, private companies and governments.
  • Collect opinions on real-world examples in which the ‘independence’ of science journalists could be threatened.
  • Raise awareness about the issue of ‘blurring lines’.

METHODOLOGY

An online Google questionnaire was created and disseminated through contact persons of (inter)national science journalism and communication associations. Contact persons’ e-mail addresses were acquired from association websites and personal communication. Contact persons were asked by e-mail to distribute a web link to the survey via association websites, mailing lists, blogs and/or twitter feeds. Brief texts calling for participation in the survey were supplied together with the web link. After a few weeks, contact persons were asked by e-mail to distribute a reminder. (Sometimes this served as a reminder for themselves as well.) Responses came in waves, typically right after the survey had been (re)marketed.
Essentially the same survey had run in Holland in 2012, attracting over 90 respondents. To not harass these respondents once again, and because their answers were extensively discussed in Holland in 2012, the global survey was not distributed in that particular country. Instead, data from 30 randomly selected Dutch respondents were added to the final global data set (30 being about the average number of respondents from other European countries in which the global survey similarly caught on, i.e. Germany, France, the UK and Italy).
All respondents had to enter a ‘front door’ by answering ‘yes’ to the first question. In effect, all respondents have stated that they were “engaged in science journalism”.
The results section presents the questions exactly as in the survey.

OUTCOMES

A. The sample

The total sample comprised of 403 respondents. None was discarded, but some respondents chose to skip one or more questions. Below, percentages reflect the total sample, so respondents who skipped that particular question are not counted.

B. The general questions

1. Are you engaged in ‘science journalism’?
We like this survey to reflect the professional status of those who identify as ‘science journalists’ or who see themselves engaged in ‘science journalism’. Those who are scientists, PR officers, educators and so forth only need not complete the survey at this time.”

  • Yes: 403 (100%);
  • No! (Thanks, but this survey is not meant for you): 0 (0%).

2. In which world region are you based?

  • North America: 54 (13%);
  • South America: 22 (5%);
  • Europe: 244 (61%);
  • Africa: 54 (13%);
  • Asia: 19 (5%);
  • Australia/NZ: 10 (2%).

3. In which country are you based?
Our top 11:

  • Germany: 53;
  • United States: 44;
  • France: 39;
  • Netherlands: 32;
  • Italy: 26;
  • United Kingdom: 20;
  • Argentina: 18;
  • South Africa: 11;
  • Australia: 10;
  • Austria: 10;
  • Canada: 10.
4. Are you a member of a national science journalism/communication association?

  • Yes: 356 (88%);
  • No: 43 (11%).

5. How do you present yourself, e.g. on your website, web profile, business card, masthead?
Please pick the answer closest to your situation.

  • Journalist, reporter: 294 (73%);
  • (Copy) writer, PR officer, communications adviser: 28 (7%);
  • A combination of the above: 77 (19%).

6. What is your professional status?
Note: only with respect to your work in science journalism/communication.

  • Employee: 109 (27%);
  • Employee plus freelance: 96 (24%);
  • Freelance: 195 (48%).

7. Who is paying you salary/freelance income these days?
Note: only with respect to science journalism/communication; You can provide more than one answer!

  • Media organizations: 329 (82%);
  • Companies, industry organizations: 75 (19%);
  • NGOs, political organizations, other non-profits: 86 (21%);
  • Researchers, universities, research institutions: 132 (33%);
  • Research funding organizations: 31 (8%);
  • Governments: 42 (10%).
8. How much of your income came from fully independent journalism?
Roughly, what percentage of your science journalism/communication income is coming from independent media organizations?

  • 0%: 38 (9%);
  • 1%-33%: 97 (24%);
  • 34%-66%: 51 (13%);
  • 67%-99%: 96 (24%);
  • 100%: 119 (30%).

9. Have you witnessed potential conflicts of interest (either with yourself or with colleagues)?

  • Never: 53 (13%);
  • Rarely: 150 (37%);
  • Occasionally: 162 (40%);
  • Frequently: 37 (9%).

Remarks [PDF]
Remarks are presented together with country and ‘self representation’.

C. Cases

(Potential) conflicts of interest are difficult to define. What was your response, or would likely have been your response, to any of the following situations?
Note: Our definitions:

  • Editor = independent media organization
  • Reader = any public audience.
  • Newspaper = any independent media outlet (including magazine, web, tv, radio).
  • PR magazine = any non-independent media production (including website, brochure, video).

Case #1: Free travel
You took a trip with all expenses paid by a subject. Back home, you write a piece for a newspaper. Q: what would you do?

  • I would tell my editor and my readers who organized and sponsored the trip: 202 (50%);
  • I would tell my editor who organized and sponsored the trip: 137 (34%);
  • I would not specify who organized and sponsored the trip: 13 (3%);
  • Out of principle, I never join organized/sponsored trips: 51 (13%).

Case #2: Newsworthy PR
You are paid to write a story for a research organization. They hope you (also) offer the story to a newspaper for publication. Q: Would you do it?

  • Yes; I report the story’s history to the editor: 182 (45%);
  • Yes; I do not report the story’s history to the editor: 11 (3%);
  • Out of principle: No.: 207 (51%).

Case #3: Good relations
You do freelance work for a research organization. A newspaper asks you to interview the organization’s new director. Q: Would you do it?

  • Yes; I report my freelance work to the editor: 200 (50%);
  • Yes; I do not report my freelance work to the editor: 19 (5%);
  • Out of principle: No.: 147 (36%).

Case #4: Safe savings
You own stock in a promising biotech start-up. An editor asks you for a story on research in which the start-up is involved. Q: Would you do it?

  • Yes; I report my stock ownership to the editor and to my readers: 87 (22%);
  • Yes; I report my stock ownership to the editor, not my readers: 45 (11%);
  • Yes; I do not report my stock ownership: 20 (5%);
  • Out of principle: No.: 240 (60%).

Case #5: Income on the side
You are employee at a Newspaper. A research organization offers to pay you well for some freelance work on the side for their PR Magazine. Q: would you do that?

  • Yes: 188 (47%);
  • Out of principle: No.: 205 (51%).

Case #6: A warm welcome
You visit a research organization’s press conference. Your press pack contains tickets for a popular concert. Q: What would you do?

  • I use the tickets or give them to friends: 262 (65%)
  • Out of principle, I leave the tickets unused: 130 (32%)

Case #7: Sponsored journalism
A funding organization sponsors a series of newspaper stories. They determine the subjects and will get to *read* your stories before they are published. The editor is out of budget and agrees. Q: Would you do that?

  • Yes: 140 (35%);
  • Out of principle: No.: 256 (64%).

Case #8: Journalist/adviser
You write for a newspaper about a particular field. A research organization in that same field asks you to freelance as a paid communications adviser. Q: Would you do that?

  • Yes: 158 (39%);
  • Out of principle: No.: 239 (59%).

DISCUSSION

A. General

As far as I know, this is the first survey of this kind. Surveys among science journalists globally are rare in any case. That fact alone would make these results interesting.

Sample bias — I do not know whether the sample is biased. There are many ways in which bias could have been introduced. The use of English could be a source of bias for starters. Also, by reaching out through associations, organized science journalists are probably overrepresented. Calls for participation were posted on various feeds and mailing lists, all of which have their own readership. For example, a freelancers mailing list will attract mostly freelancers.

Truthfulness — I do not know whether respondents have answered truthfully. The survey was anonymous, to they did not have an interest in not telling the truth. However, people tend to see themselves as above any suspicion, and they may have cast some past behavior in good light. All ‘cases’ resemble real-life situations, but for many individual respondents they may still have been hypothetical.

B. The general questions

1. Are you engaged in ‘science journalism’?

Since this question was used as the ‘front door’ to the rest of the survey, the outcome can only be 100% “yes”. (Anyone answering “no” could not enter.) It is not known whether some may have cheated on this question just to get in.

2. In which world region are you based?

The heavy representation of European science journalists could be due to the large number of national associations in Europe, since associations were used extensively to disseminate web links to the survey. Asia (also including Near-Eastern countries such as Turkey, Iran and Iraq) is underrepresented, most probably because of the fact that contact persons from associations in China, Japan and Korea were unresponsive and probably did not advertise the survey to members. Just how much the various regions are under- of overrepresented is hard to know without reliable independent data on the actual numbers of science journalists.
Regional background was used to identify regional variation on some other survey questions. Asia, Australia/NZ and South America were not included in these analyses however because they contributed less than 50 respondents each, and just a few respondents would swing outcomes considerably.

3. In which country are you based?

Respondents said to be based in 53 different countries. The number of respondents per country varied wildly. It may have been due to local factors such as the availability of popular professional blogs/mailing lists, the level of interest in professional ethics, a history of recent debates on the issue and so forth. In some countries, one call triggered dozens of respondents; in others, even personal e-mails to all association members did not produce any response.

4. Are you a member of a national science journalism/communication association?

By far most of our respondents were members of national associations. That may well have been due to the fact that such associations were used heavily to advertise the web link to the survey. It does not tell us much about how many science journalists are members of such associations to begin with.

5. How do you present yourself, e.g. on your website, web profile, business card, masthead?

Most respondents present themselves as ‘journalist’ or ‘reporter’. Only a few say they are ‘(copy) writer, pr officer, or communications adviser’ (but ‘engaged in science journalism’). This small group probably includes those in the English-speaking world who go by the name of ‘science writer’. An interesting 1/5th of respondents openly presents themselves as a combination of the two — the clients picks and chooses.

6. What is your professional status?

It is not known whether the sample is biased, but half of the respondents worked only freelance while a quarter worked for an employer only. Another quarter said to be both employed and freelance, which means that they did work on the side (either for news media or for other sorts of clients) besides their employment.

7. Who is paying you salary/freelance income these days?

This chart should be interpreted with particular caution, as respondents could give multiple answers. A few facts are noteworthy.

  • For example, 18% of respondents (all of whom said to be ‘engaged in science journalism’) did not earn income from news media organizations. Some might argue with their definition of ‘journalism’.
  • Research organizations are the most popular alternative source of income for ‘science journalists’. One in three respondents (also) earned money from this category.
  • Non-profit and for-profit organizations attract significant numbers of science journalists to do work for them.
  • Governments and research funding organizations attract less people ‘engaged in science journalism’ to do work for them.
8. How much of your income came from fully independent journalism?
These are complicated slides, which roughly quantify people’s footprints on either side of the ‘fence’ between science journalism and science pr. A number of statements can be derived from the numbers.

  • Between a quarter and a third (30%) of our respondents says they ONLY earn income from independent news media.
  • Almost two thirds (60%) of our respondents say they have income from both sides of the fence.
  • Almost half (46%) of our respondents earn more than 1/3 of their income from non-media sources.
  • 1/10th of respondents (all of whom said to be ‘engaged in science journalism’) earn 0% of their income from independent news media. Some might work at universities under some sort of protection, but you could argue about the definition of ‘journalism’.

9. Have you witnessed potential conflicts of interest (either with yourself or with colleagues)?

This chart should be interpreted with great caution, since it is not clear how respondents define ‘potential conflicts of interest’. Comparing answers to this question to general remarks made at the end of the survey, one gets the impression that those who care the most about NOT having conflicts of interest see the greatest potential for them in the community. If anything, these answers could be interpreted as a measure of people’s awareness that the risks of (potential) conflicts of interest in science journalism are real.

Remarks [PDF]

Respondents’ spontaneous remarks offer an alternative and wide open window into the modern-day financial and ethical struggles of science journalists. They clearly show that present-day media economics, with a shrinking market for independent, well researched, specialized science journalism, it taking a toll on many. Rather than stop being journalists, many try to pay the bills by slipping through holes in the fence between journalism and pr. Some are fine with it, others feel troubled and welcome an open debate.

C. Cases

Case #1: Free travel
You took a trip with all expenses paid by a subject. Back home, you write a piece for a newspaper. Q: what would you do?

This scenario is very realistic. With news media not allocating much (or any) budget for reporters’ travel, governments, companies, research institutes and NGOs frequently seduce journalists to come over for one or more days to listen to their accomplishments or to their side of the story. In effect, they ‘buy’ attention in editorial pages, which because of their perceived independence carry a lot more weight than advertizing or advertorial pages. For this reason, some newspapers still do not allow sponsored trips (although they may make exceptions for their travel sections).
About 1/8th of our respondents echo this principled choice. According to the survey, half or our respondents would take the trip AND tell their readers who paid for it. This contrasts with the fact that one rarely comes across such frank disclosures. Some stories do disclose that a certain trip was ‘organized’ by organization or company X, but usually the reader is left to guess who paid the airfare and the accommodation.
Probably more honest were those who answered that they would tell no one who paid for the trip (3%) or just their editor (34%).
In personal communication, many science journalists tell me that readers might ‘misunderstand’ financial disclosures under their stories, i.e. readers might think that reporters were influenced by receiving the trip.

Case #2: Newsworthy PR
You are paid to write a story for a research organization. They hope you (also) offer the story to a newspaper for publication. Q: Would you do it?

Again, a very realistic scenario. PR officers have told me that this is in fact part of why they hire specific journalists for their glossy or brochure: they get a ride into the newspaper for free. The numbers show wide disagreement over whether the practice is acceptable. Half (51%) of our respondents say that they will not do this out of principle; the other half (45%) say it’s okay as long as you tell your editor. (It’s unknown whether they really do.)

Case #3: Good relations
You do freelance work for a research organization. A newspaper asks you to interview the organization’s new director. Q: Would you do it?

Basically, this case is about making an ‘independent’ interview with someone who is basically your (new) client. To 1/3rd (36%) or our respondents, it should clearly be out of the question. Half or our respondents would find it okay however if they would disclose the relationship to the newspaper editor (we don’t know whether they would). A small portion (5%) said they would go ahead without mentioning it.

Case #4: Safe savings
You own stock in a promising biotech startup. An editor asks you for a story on research in which the startup is involved. Q: Would you do it?

Some parts of journalism have clear, written rules about this. In science journalism, however, such rules are mostly missing. Part of the reason may be that science journalists mostly stop covering research when it enters the private sphere. Many respondents may have regarded this a highly hypothetical question. Most respondents say they would either not do this (60%) or report their stocks to the readers (22%). A minority would be content with a disclosure just to the editor (11%) or with no disclosure at all (5%).

Case #5: Income on the side
You are employee at a Newspaper. A research organization offers to pay you well for some freelance work on the side for their PR Magazine. Q: would you do that?

Again, a very realistic scenario, as shown by the answers to general question 7. For about half (47%) of the respondents, being employed at an independent news organization can go together with freelancing for research organizations. The question does not specify whether the freelance work could be in a totally different scientific area, but in reality, most people will be specialized in just one (broad) area. The other half (51%) of our respondents say they don’t think this is okay.

Case #6: A warm welcome
You visit a research organization’s press conference. Your press pack contains tickets for a popular concert. Q: What would you do?

Some parts of journalism have clear, written rules about refusing any gifts that could be construed as a bribe or a way to make friends with them. Tickets for a popular concert would certainly be in that category (let alone the possibility that officers from the research organization will attend the same concert). In our sample, two thirds (65%) would accept the gift and use the tickets or give them to friends. In personal communication, many science journalists do not acknowledge that gifts are a way to build friendly relationships that can be exploited at some later time. One third (32%) of respondents did say that they would not accept the gift.

Case #7: Sponsored journalism
A funding organization sponsors a series of newspaper stories. They determine the subjects and will get to *read* your stories before they are published. The editor is out of budget and agrees. Q: Would you do that?

This is a case taken from real life, although it’s not discussed openly. It goes a step further than paying for trips by letting research funders directly purchase editorial pages with the option of objecting to things they don’t like. For example: an organization that wants to raise money for brain research ensures that a major newspaper covers promising research into various brain diseases. In this case, despite the editor agreeing, two thirds (64%) of our respondents say they will not do this out of principle. (Whether in fact they would not, we don’t know.) One third (35%) would take the assignment.

Case #8: Journalist/adviser
You write for a newspaper about a particular field. A research organization in that same field asks you to freelance as a paid communications adviser. Q: Would you do that?

A communications adviser helps clients to get into the news media in wanted ways and prevent being portrayed in unwanted ways. There is nothing wrong with good advice; the question is whether the two roles can be combined in one person without risking one’s independence (apart from doing paid work for story subjects/sources anyway). A majority (59%) or respondents said they would not combine the two. A large minority (39%) said that they would.

CONCLUSIONS

This survey shows that lines between science journalism and science pr are pretty blurred indeed. Many science journalists, whether out of necessity or for other reasons, earn income on both sides of the ‘fence’ that was thought to separate journalism from pr.

Quantitatively, it’s impossible to say whether this a new or growing phenomenon. Qualitatively, however, many spontaneous remarks by respondents suggest that there is a direct relationship between a shrinking market for independent science journalism and a trend towards more journalists working on both sides of the fence. “Don’t be Taliban — I have to survive”, one respondent wrote pointedly.

Of course there is nothing new to journalists making the switch to pr at some point in their careers. Reporters doing pr-related work on the side while continuing to present themselves as ‘journalists’ to the world could be a new and different thing, however.

Responses to the eight cases, general remarks by many respondents and lots of personal communication from private and public discussions all highlight the fact that science journalists are entering this new phase while playing by many different rules, most of which made up by and for themselves as they go along.

It’s up for debate whether this trend will ultimately harm the credibility of science journalism and, by extension, the credibility of science itself among the general public. And, if so, what various actors in the profession could or should do to prevent that from happening.

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