June 21, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Last week, journalist and blogger Paul Raeburn wrote a highly critical piece on a pair of relatively new science journalism awards, calling them ‘junkets’. Alok Jha, science correspondent at The Guardian, agreed on Twitter that one of the awards was ‘dodgy’. The first is the European Astronomy Journalism Prize, awarded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), in conjunction with the Association of British Science Writers and the Royal Astronomical Society. The ‘European Astronomy Society’ to whom Raeburn attributes the award is a completely different organisation, although this is a minor point. The second competition mentioned is the Award for Physics Journalism, run by the Institute of Physics (IoP) in association with the STFC.

In regard to the first competition, for which the prize is a trip to the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, Raeburn says:

‘The award is transparentally [sic] self-serving, and it ought to be avoided. Reporters who want to go to Chile should raise the money some other way.’

Although I agree that the award is transparently self-serving, I don’t believe that this is a bad thing at all. Although winners may feel some inclination to give positive coverage to the ESO, that is entirely their prerogative and they should not be condemned for it.

It’s a simple fact that organisations will spend money to serve their own ends, and I would encourage journalists and readers alike to embrace the transparency in such competitions. Would it not be far more worrying if institutions were offering such rewards behind closed doors, rather than press releasing them for all to see?

The IoP competition offers an expenses-paid flight to Japan, from which the winner is expected to produce a news article for Physics World. This is an important point, since readers of Physics World will expect a pro-physics bias before they’ve turned the first page. I see no problem with a journalist wishing to write an article for the magazine in exchange for a trip to Japan, if that’s what they signed up to do. Here, my views clash once again with Raeburn’s.

“They shouldn’t accept free trips from scientific groups any more than they should accept free trips from, say, creationist groups or anti-vivisectionists,” he says in the comments on his article. “It’s not right. Journalists owe their readers a fair view of what they see, not a view tainted by money from interested parties.” 

I firmly believe that journalists should be free to accept invitations to any event, from any group, as long as they are open about it with their readers and editors. Otherwise, where do we draw the line? Do we bar journalists from all press conferences where the hosts cover transport costs? Or from evening events where refreshments are provided? In today’s society, it’s naïve to think that any journalist will ever be truly isolated from ‘money from interested parties’. I therefore wholeheartedly embrace competitions which make such relationships so public, and would not seek to discourage any journalist from applying.

IMAGE: barnoid, Flickr.