The local Guelph chapter of Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) is quite a going concern. Last night we met at the Red Papaya for drinks and our monthly meeting. One of our topics was “dealing with feast and famine.” In the end it raised an important ethical question.
I’ve received a lot of encouragement and valuable advice from other members. Last night, after I mentioned my goal of doing more science writing, someone said, “Van, let me give you a tip.” She is a ball of energy, always eager to help, a corporate writer who does a lot of work for agricultural publications.
First she suggested contacting research departments of local universities and asking to be added to their media lists. This was great advice. I live within 30 minutes of four important Canadian universities—Guelph, McMaster, Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier—a resource easily tapped. She pointed out that these departments have a mandate to communicate their work to the media, so I would be doing them a service.
I need to start attending symposiums.
Then she talked about developing relationships with researchers. Along with some other points she said, “Let them read your article to check for accuracy.”
I heard a sharp intake of breath from the travel writer next to me.
I said, “No, as a journalist I could not do that.”
I was trained as a journalist, but worked in public relations for five years long ago, so I understood where she was coming from. Her client is her source; mine is the person who buys a magazine or newspaper or clicks a link online.
I am not a spokesperson. Public relations people are valuable to me, but we are not the same.
My job is to ensure the reader receives accurate, balanced information. I cannot avoid personal biases, but I do my best. I don’t have any trouble bouncing a specific point off an interviewee to make sure I understand. I don’t have any trouble asking them about a conflicting point of view to get a rebuttal. But thorough research and good fact checking are not the same as letting a source influence how I write the article.
In many stories I write it will not make a difference, but a time will come when it does. Then I must know with certainty where I stand and where my integrity is rooted.
As our meeting drew to a close, the corporate writer continued to argue why I should show them. The travel writer didn’t say a thing, but paid her bill and left. I smiled and listened. My eyes must have been glazing over by the time the speaker stopped.
Now I just need to vent: No no no no no!
This moment clarified my goals in coming back to magazine writing after all this time, and who I am writing for. I hope I haven’t offended any corporate writer friends. I am inspired by the collective passion and energy of all the freelancers I know, and how many endure uncertainty and make sacrifices to do what they love. We are all in this together in a way, and we all have jobs to do.
Just don’t try to convert me and we’ll be fine.