By Tamar Haspel
Okay, freelancers, let’s talk about money.
We need it to keep a roof over our heads, and not all of us get all we need from journalism. Which leads to the problem I’d like to solve: how do we ethically navigate the world of conferences and events, travel expenses and speaking fees, and other work in general?
Journalists with the benefit of full-time employment generally don’t have this problem, as their employers have ethics policies that they’re required to follow. Freelance journalists are usually required to follow them, too, when we’re on a story for that publication. I have a column in the Washington Post, which has a no-money-ever policy, and I follow it scrupulously for my work there.
But the rest of the time, when we’re not on a specific story, the rest of the world is a complicated place rife with conflict-of-interest pitfalls. I’ve found precious little help navigating these issues.
I’m operating under the assumption that journalism benefits when freelancers can make a living, and the no-money-ever rule, universally applied, would prevent that in a lot of cases (including my own). And so, like many of my freelance brethren, I’ve developed my own guidelines for doing work outside of writing.
The first rule is easy and, I think, universally agreed on: disclose. Whatever it is you decide to do, make it public.
Figuring out what to do is harder. As a journalist on the food and ag beat, I'm trying hard to have a more constructive conversation about those subjects, and my first criterion for speaking engagements is that the event should be consistent with that goal. Second is that, if industry in involved, it can't be the only voice. So if I'm invited to speak at a conference sponsored by UC Davis, the USDA, and Syngenta, I'll consider it. Syngenta alone -- I won't. Third, I do my best to get people who disagree in the same room, and on the same panel.
It seems to me to be reasonable. My editors think it’s reasonable. I’ve bounced it off other journalists, who think it’s reasonable. But I don’t think reasonable is good enough.
Most ethics guidelines specify that journalists need to avoid conflict-of-interest, or the appearance of conflict-of-interest. That appearance part is tricky, because it is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. I write about some controversial issues (genetically modified food foremost among them), and people who disagree with me may see the appearance of conflict-of-interest where people who agree with me see none. I don’t think my policy has to handle every unreasonable objection, but I’ve come to believe it has to answer some of them.
And, at the end of the day, if the answer to the question "who developed your ethical standards?" is, "Well, I did," you're vulnerable.
That’s why I’m writing for the National Press Foundation, which selected me for one of its training programs in 2015. I’d like to try and build something like a consensus on how freelancers should make decisions about where it’s OK to speak and where it isn’t, which trips are appropriate and which aren’t, and how to fit non-journalism work into a journalism career. I recognize that no one set of guidelines will cover all of us, but some general principles sure would be helpful.
Here are a few of the questions I’ve struggled with:
-How do we handle conferences sponsored by several groups – academic, nonprofit, and industry?
-Are travel expenses in a different category than fees and honoraria?
- Does the content of the event matter, or just the source of the funding?
I’m looking for more questions, and perhaps some answers. In subsequent posts, I’ll talk to some of the people who spend time on these issues to try and get both. Meanwhile, if you’re a freelancer, or a journalism pro, weigh in by emailing me: email@example.com
Editor's Note: Tamar Haspel is a freelance journalist who writes for, among others, The Washington Post, Fortune, and National Geographic. She farms oysters in her spare time.