A troubling trade: Gerontological Society offering journalism fellowships, with an ethical catch

We once again pull back the curtain to let you, the news consumer, learn about another of the behind-the-scenes ways in which the news is made. In a time of increasing competition for news attention, some health/medical/science news purveyors break new ground of questionable ethical practice.  In so doing, they may lure journalists into ethical missteps as well. Both parties should know better and abandon the practice we describe herein.

The Gerontological Society of America (GSA) is offering fellowships to “journalists who wish to cover issues in aging and/or who work for ethnic media outlets serving U.S. communities.”

Sounds helpful.  But keep reading from the fellowship announcement.

The selected fellows will attend GSA’s 2018 Annual Scientific Meeting, which will take place from November 14 to 18.  …

Fellows will also commit to completing one short-term story about any aspect of the meeting and a long-term in-depth project of their own design. …

Each fellow will receive a stipend of $1,500, with $500 to be paid on arrival at the meeting and the remaining $1,000 upon publication/airing of the long-term project. In addition, GSA will arrange and pay for all flights and hotel bookings in Boston, Massachusetts. Qualifying local travel expenses (e.g., cab, train, or bus fares).

This an ethically challenged offer that GSA should reconsider. Any journalist who would think of applying should think twice, unless this is the kind of thing one doesn’t mind putting on one’s resume:  “I got paid by a health care organization for writing stories about them.”

Science writer Erik Vance tweeted about this last week:

In an email, Vance wrote to me:

I am going to an ocean meeting at the end of the month on a grant. But there is no requirement for stories. Some of the stories I find there might be bouncing around my noodle for months or more. I just sold a story from a meeting I attended a year ago. I just had to wait for the time to be right. I went to a meeting in Boston on brain science that was very important for my work but I haven’t sold a story from it yet.

The troubling aspect of this is when they start demanding coverage. It’s incredibly hard for freelancers to avoid conflicts of interest and this basically just serves them on a plate. To GSA, I would say that I assume they set this up with the best of intentions. But by requiring coverage, they are eroding the foundations of good journalism and normalizing conflicts of interest. If they want good journalists to cover them, they have to respect good journalism practices.

Eight years ago, the Columbia Journalism Review wrote about a kerfuffle that Vance was involved in when he tried to get a freelancer press pass to a scientific meeting. He explains that as newsrooms have made cutbacks, increasingly more news comes from freelancers like him.  And it’s difficult for young freelancers to pay for their own travel for stories.  So some non-governmental organizations have started financing the trips. He calls it, “one of those quiet problems nibbling away at the edges of good journalism.”

Andrew Seaman is a journalist, and is chair of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee.  He wrote me:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this arrangement. The GSA’s fellowship requirements are troubling. Basically, they seem to have created a really expensive PR campaign to produce vetted advertorials. I’m never really comfortable with these types of fellowships, but I don’t think they’re universally bad. This one crosses too many lines for me.

Bioethicist Carl Elliott, PhD, wrote succinctly: “Who needs a PR office when you can just pay journalists to write stories for you?”

It’s difficult to get around this description:  We’ll pay you if you write about us.

The Association of Health Care Journalists’ Statement of Principles (the first iteration of which I wrote in 2004) states:

We must:

  • Preserve a dispassionate relationship with sources, avoiding conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Weigh the potential benefits involved in accepting fees, honoraria, free travel, paid expenses from organizers of conferences or events against the desire to preserve our credibility with the audience and the need to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

What if a journalist applied for the fellowship, was accepted, attended the meeting, and didn’t find anything that he or she – exercising sound editorial judgment – thought was newsworthy? By the terms of the fellowship, they’d have to write something anyway.

I emailed Todd Kluss, the program’s Co-Director and the Gerontological Society of America’s Associate Director of Communications requesting an interview about the program. He has not responded.

News that concerns an aging population should stand on its own merits.  The importance of such news should be clear to news organizations.  It shouldn’t require a kind of bribe to get journalists to attend a meeting about aging issues and then to report on issues that are discovered at the meeting.  If that’s the depth to which meeting coverage has devolved, we are in worse straits in the polluted stream of health care news to the public than most people are aware.

Journalist Vance wrote to me, “I would remind journalists that all of us, even the most conscientious, are vulnerable to having our opinions shaped by conflicts of interests. And it’s so hard to walk away from free money. But this money isn’t free.”

The application deadline is tomorrow, July 12.  It’s not too late for GSA to abandon this offer, and not too late for journalists to back away from an ethical morass.

Other reading:

Other things that we have published about conflicts of interest in health care journalism appear on this page: The trail of tainted funding: Conflicts of interest in healthcare, academics, public relations and journalism.

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