By Tamar Haspel

When I began sorting through all the ethical issues that freelance journalists face, I realized that framing the problem is the easy part. It’s the answers that are tough.

I spoke with a number of ethicists and told them I wanted to develop a set of standards for freelancers, and they all told me essentially the same thing: good luck with that. OK, they didn’t use those exact words. Tom Kent, deputy managing editor and standards editor for the Associated Press, said, “You’ll go nuts if you try to get the whole world in a room to agree on a detailed code of ethics for freelancers.”

Caesar Andrews, distinguished professor in ethics and writing at the University of Nevada Reno (and former NPF Board member), said, “I’m going to wish you the best in trying to find a consensus.”

Kelly McBride, resident ethicist (and vice president of academic programs) for the Poynter Institute, and author of “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century,” told me that, no matter what kind of basic principles a freelancer lays down, each case is going to have to be considered separately, on its own merits.

I recently came face-to-face with that reality.  A story of two events illustrates the problem.

Both events involve an organization called GMO Answers, a PR effort by the biotechnology industry to answer consumer questions about genetically modified crops. The first was a debate at the 2015 SXSW. GMO Answers paid for it, but invited Chris Miller from Ben & Jerry’s, a bona fide GMO opponent, to participate. Ben & Jerry’s signed off on the format and on me as moderator, but they paid only in ice cream. It was a lot of ice cream (I still have some coupons), but still.

I was on the fence about it because all the money came from one source, but in all other ways this was an event that is exactly the kind I’ve been advocating for: a genuine exchange of views among people who disagree, in front of an audience with a wide range of opinions.

I have two criteria for accepting paid speaking engagements.  First is that the event has to be consistent with my public mission, which is to have more constructive debates about food issues. Second is that, if for-profit companies are involved in the event, they can’t be the only voice.  I decided that the SXSW debate was worthwhile.

The second event was put on by Scientific American at the National Press Club, and it was a discussion of how science is covered by the media.  They invited me a couple months in advance, and I didn’t find out about GMO Answers’ sponsorship until a couple weeks before the event.  On paper, this event also met my criteria.  Scientific American determined the substance of the event, and other journalists were participating; certainly, those are other voices.  Also, Johnson & Johnson was co-sponsoring.

But this one didn’t feel right. I was concerned that this would be another echo-chamber event, where people of like minds gather to confirm their world view. I decided I couldn’t accept any expense money; the question was whether to participate.

I called Kelly McBride, who has kindly given me permission to check in with her whenever I have questions about ethical issues, and asked whether that situation was inevitably compromising. She focused on the nature of GMO Answers’ involvement – whether they would in any way be impinging on the independence of the journalists involved. The Scientific American staff assured me that we would have free reign to say whatever we thought was important, including the problem of industry sponsorship of events like theirs.

And that’s why I decided to go.  I’ve been devoting time, effort, and ink to an attempt at improving public discourse on charged food issues, and that room was going to be filled with people who cared a lot about those things.  If I could wave my “get different points of view in the room” flag, I might be able to persuade a few of them.

I went.  I paid my own way.  And the room was filled with a lot of like-minded people.  When I asked how many were skeptical of the contribution genetically modified crops could make to agriculture, four hands went up, out of maybe 100 people. I waved my flag.

In my conversations with McBride, Kent, and Andrews, they all stressed that a wide variety of factors contribute to whether something presents the potential for a conflict of interest. The obvious ones are the funder and whether or not the journalist is being paid but the less obvious ones – the audience, the venue, the other participants, the content, the journalist’s role – all matter.

My inclination is to make a list and declare that, say, four out of five of the criteria have to be met in order for me to participate but Andrews said something that convinced me that was an effort that would probably end in tears.

Any attempt at creating ethical guidelines, he said, “requires an acceptance of untidiness.  It’s not going to be consistent and absolute.”  Which doesn’t mean no guidelines at all.  It means that each event is different.  Each has pitfalls.  Each has potential for constructive engagement.  So, my hard-and-fast list?

Good luck with that.

Editor's Note: Tamar Haspel is a freelance journalist who writes for, among others, The Washington Post, Fortune, and National Geographic. She was an NPF fellow in 2015.