I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and I choose the events and conferences I participate in carefully.
Because the ethical issues involved with accepting paying work at conferences and events are paramount to my disinterestedness as a journalist, I consult with experts in media ethics, including Kelly McBride (at Poynter, and the author of The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century) and Caesar Andrews (distinguished professor of ethics and writing at the University of Nevada, Reno) both about my guidelines and whenever I have doubts about an issue or a potential speaking opportunity. Having disinterested, professional experts confirm that I’m dealing with these situations ethically and responsibly is essential.
My guidelines consist of two basic criteria. 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 (as they sometimes are), they can’t be the only voice. So, I would speak at a conference co-sponsored by, say, Monsanto and the USDA and NC State University, but not an event sponsored by Monsanto alone. (I also make the list of my speaking engagements public, in the interest of transparency.) The actual checks generally come from the academic institutions sponsoring the conference, but since the funding is fungible, I think journalists have to acknowledge all the sponsors in those situations. The key, for me, is that for-profit interests are counterbalanced by academic, scientific, NGO, activist, and/or governmental participants.
My objective is to get people with very different views in the same room. So, for example, when I was invited to moderate a panel on GMO labeling at the North Carolina Agriculture and Biotech Summit, the organizers worked with me to get representatives from Just Label It and Consumers Union on the panel.
After spending several years writing about these issues, I believe that face-to-face meetings often have more potential for constructive engagement than journalism does. Facts don’t persuade people as much as people persuade people, and I’m convinced that the way to tone down rhetoric, find common ground, and, ultimately, make progress on improving our food supply is one person at a time, one meeting at a time, face to face. That said, I’ve been to some events that I thought were too one-sided to be constructive, and having people with different viewpoints has become increasingly important to me.
I also write an occasional series about ethics for freelance journalists for the National Press Foundation:
As a part of that effort, I’ve interviewed several different ethicists about the possibility of developing guidelines for freelancers navigating these kinds of issues, and the lesson they have taught me is that there are so many things that can affect the potential for conflict-of-interest that no set of guidelines is going to spit out a yes or no answer for every question. Instead, they advised me, develop general guidelines, but then disclose the rationale for each event individually. So, beginning in 2016, that’s what I’m doing.
If you’re a journalist, or a reader, or a conference organizer with thoughts about these issues, I’d very much appreciate hearing from you. Freelance journalists have precious little in the way of guidance on ethical questions, and I’d like to collect opinions, stories, dilemmas, and thoughts to try and fill that gap.