Running your own business: Session Review

Three journalists and one accountant gave useful tips for freelancers to set up in business at the 3rdUK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ14)

Chaired by Martin Ince, ABSW president, three speakers including Toby Murcott, Richard Hollingham and Martin Connell, filed the concern of journalists when considering stepping into the business world. Murcott previously worked for BBC Radio Science Unit, BBC World Service Radio, as Science Editor for Maxim magazine and Einstein TV. However, he began his freelancing path after an unexpected incident. Until now he has still not been on “the wrong side of the Inland Revenue”. The income from his freelancing job ensures that he has finance stability for a year at a time. Besides that, he has a balanced life in which he can enjoy both work and leisure time. Hollingham took a slightly different path when setting up a company that produces science programs for BBC radio and TV reports for the European Space Agency. His business has run pretty well so far. On the other hand, Connell is an experienced accountant with over thirty working years working with sole traders and small business owners. Although he has advised numerous sole traders and small companies, this is the first time he has clients who are science journalists.

Beginning as a freelancer

There are many ways to become a freelancer - both intentional and un-intentional. Like Murcott, it was an unexpected path. “Sometimes the company you work for goes bust and you don’t really have much choice”. Hollingham also didn’t intend to be a freelancer. He lost his job and then he decided to be a radio presenter. However, he became a freelance as his preferred choice when he realised the best way to guarantee the future was by going down the freelancing path.

Keeping hard - earned - money 

One of the most frequent questions for a freelancer is how to know that you can earn enough money? The answer of the two experienced journalists was the same; “by opening a business account”.

As a sole trader, Murcott’s saving tip is to divide total income every month into 40% for the reserved account and 60% for the bank account. The money in the reserved account will make sure that at the end of the year Murcott can pay his taxes without any difficulties and could leave an extra bonus for him from the remainder. It works like a back-up for him to make sure that he already has money aside for paying tax. Well, like the practical American often said “in this world nothing is sure but death and taxes"; tax is something that a freelancer should bear in mind first.

Meanwhile, Hollingham also agreed that having a business account is necessary. However, he had a slightly different formula. For the reserved bank account he puts aside 25% of his income. From his observation, that amount is “a little more than I have to.” It seems that a freelancer would have to base a decision on the particular personal circumstances to decide the right amount of money to be placed into separate accounts to pay off tax.  

From the accountant’s view, Connell urged that in the case where a freelancer sets up a company, that person has to have an account because it is needed for paying tax as well as for many other business expenses.  

Seeking professional help if necessary

In the conference, the panel drew on another key financial point: to encourage the journalist to manage a business with an accountant. Although Murcott said what the accountant reports bears “absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to what I think I do over the year”, it makes the tax burden at the end of the year become reasonable. Besides that, the accountant also makes the tax payment process become much smoother as they know about when, where, who and how to do that. 

Connell said there is a lot of faulty information on the internet. He also stated that freelancers are choosing self-employment and doing the tax by themselves. If they have questions, they should find answers from the correct source. Connell suggested “in terms of finding an accountant, I would recommend speak to a friend and get their recommendation.” 

And remember “happier earning a little bit less”

Murcott only earns £30,000 a year, which is as he said “not huge” but “enough”. The current work allows him to spend time with his family and to have plenty of leisure time. He said he is probably able to earn more but he feels happier now with the present situation. Hollingham also emphasised the necessity of a balanced life. He said the freelancer tends to think that they have to work every day and it’s crazy to have two freelancers in the one house-hold.

There are advantages and disadvantages in being a freelancer. However, careful preparation and professional work will help if you follow this path.

Science Journalism: Living up to the egalitarian ideal?

"Science is an egalitarian endeavour", exclaimed Priya Shetty, global health and human rights journalist, during the opening talk of UKCSJ 2014. Science may indeed have egalitarian ideals, but in practice both science and science journalism are rife with sexism.

Michelle Steinstreet, General Secretary of the NUJ, began the conference by explaining the prevalence of sexism throughout all journalism. Michelle noted, "the journalistic equivalent of the casting couch is still alive and kicking in the 21st century." But this isn't just a case of greasy old men preying on hopeful young interns. When it comes to ageing, female journalists are side lined more often than their "equally wrinkled male counterparts".

Joan Haran, of Cardiff University, has conducted research into sexism and harassment in science journalism. Joan reported the broad range of sexism, from intimidation to coercion and outright sexual harassment, which is prevalent in the industry. It was initially shocking to hear that one harassment testimonial couldn't be presented to the conference, as the victim believed the perpetrator may be in attendance. This announcement was met by an eerie silence, followed by turning heads and accusatory stares. I say 'initially' shocking as while the talk progressed it became overwhelmingly obvious that the various forms of harassment are so common in the industry that some of the perpetrators must have been present.

It was a deeply troubling talk, which had males throughout the room bowing their heads in an act of shame-by-gender-association. Although, there was a short break in these prostrations when Priya reminded us that not all men are predatory power abusers. "I'm not saying that all men act like this. It's a relatively small industry and many people know who the repeat offenders are, but they won't talk about it openly," Priya concluded.

Interestingly, Sue Nelson, chair of the panel, spoke out against the claim that sexism is all one way. She told the conference of a particular example of a male journalist having to leave the city after a particularly predatory female editor wouldn't stop harassing him. As partially reassuring as it was to hear that sexism doesn't solely stem from the Y chromosome, it is an unavoidable truth that nearly all cases are perpetrated by males.

It is still unclear whether sexism is more prevalent in science journalism than in other industries; or whether the sexism within this industry is a reflection of the simmering misogyny that still permeates society. Either way the issue will not get resolved unless it is talked about, and more importantly, talked about openly.

The overarching theme of all the talks in the session was that of the judgement, unfair reaction and negative ramifications which women are subjected to when they do report acts of harassment. Many are being side-lined, or even fired, just for telling their employers what happened to them. It is clear that the current pathways and channels that are used to report harassment in the workplace are not fit for purpose. Therefore, a new outside regulatory or legal framework is needed so that victims of sexual harassment in the workplace can have a safe and effective channel to report their experiences with impunity.

Reproducibility in Science: Session Review

 “Stop judging science by results”, said Dr. Chris Chambers, professor at the Department of Psychology, Cardiff University at the plenary session of UK Conference of Science Journalists, 2014, while stressing the need for reproducibility in science. Referring to the scientific method as being ‘gamed’, Chris strongly felt that the current cycle of peer-reviewed publications needs to be replaced by a process which ensures acceptance of a study before the results are obtained. In this way, the proposed methods and collected data could be reviewed, and the results would not determine the fate of publication of the study. This could be one way of avoiding the ‘cherry-picking’ of data and manipulation of results, which lead to lack of reproducibility in science. Furthermore, open data and critical reporting of science were said to be essential for keeping science honest.

Deborah Cohen, investigations editor at the BMJ, also stressed the need for being critical while reporting science and to keep asking questions.”If in doubt, ask for the data”, she said, while urging journalists to ask researchers their original aims and also to investigate why certain questions are not being asked at all.  Health sciences, according to her, have a lot of issues and should be investigated more thoroughly. She suggested checking Pubmed to see what has already been published about the topic at hand. In this age of digitized publications, it is extremely easy to compare new findings to old literature, and there should be no excuse for missing out on information for replicating old studies.

However, reproducing scientific studies is seen to be a growing problem. Ivan Oransky, vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today, expressed his shock at the lack of reproducibility in science and gave an insight into incorrect scientific methods and rising retractions. Pointing to a few articles published in leading newspapers such as The New York Times, Ivan showed how journalists have misrepresented scientific information in the past, leading to bizarre headlines.

Besides, some scientific studies have also been conducted in an incorrect manner, either missing out on confounding factors or by considering a very small sample size, for instance. As a result, retractions are on the rise since, with more than a tenfold increase in papers retracted during 2001-2010 – a disproportionate amount when compared to the numbers of papers published. Ivan also gave an example stating that if 5000 compounds started out for the market, only about five would make it to the clinical trials, and then only one would be likely to get FDA approval.

A healthy discussion followed with the audience, with many important issues being talked about. The possibilities of increased pressures on scientists to get publications and funding were seen as likely causes of fraud in science. In some cases, scientific work may be dependent on certain funding agencies or individuals, which may result in financial interests causing distortion of the results. There will always be uncertainty behind the absolute truth of any research, but certain measures could be taken to improve the situation. As John P. A. Ioannidis explains in his paper, looking at large-scale evidence and reducing bias could be steps to take. Overall, it was seen that post-publication peer review could be a good option to regulate published studies, and scientists should certainly aim at becoming self-regulators of research.

Sexism in Science Journalism: Session Review

The UK Conference of Science Journalists 2014 initiated with an issue of both current and continual importance - sexism in science journalism - the act of prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination, typically against women.

With two high profile cases sending shockwaves through the profession, both in the United Kingdom and across the pond, it was evident that this plenary session would resonate with many, long after the conference had passed. The session was chaired by Sue Nelson, Boffin media, a worthy chaperone given her recent comments in the Daily Telegraph on how ‘TV science was filled with too many Top Gear science style programmes fronted by male comedians that alienated both women viewers and guests’.

Yvonne Brill’s New York Times obituary set the scene beautifully for the first speaker - Michelle Stanisteen, general secretary, NUJ. Stanisteen exemplified how she felt ‘sexism was still alive and kicking in the broader industry’ by pointing out how women on maternity leave or those working flexibly, had been blatantly targeted during the economic downturn. An NUJ 2012 survey relayed concern over an ‘old boy’s club’ approach to recruitment and ‘opaque’ salary structures. Internships were noted as a ‘whole new area of exploitation’ and prejudice over presenting roles lead to women ‘on the wrong side of 50’ finding it much harder to work than their ‘equally wrinkled male counterparts’. The speech moved onto the online experience, and Stanisteen raised an important question - who should be responsible for moderating threatening and misogynistic article comments?

Victims fear reporting incidents over the possibility that ‘work might dry up’, and this was particularly the case for freelance or casual workers and it is leading to a system where the perpetrator is left ‘to carry on that kind of behaviour elsewhere’. Whilst new investigations are underway and more police involvement is taking place, Stanisteen makes the point that ‘this problem is one that affects all of us and should not be individualised’.

Next to take the podium was Dr Joan Haran where she narrowed down the issue to science journalism and presented the findings of a recent ABSW-led survey. ‘Prolonged and repeated contact with sources and without witnesses’, leading to employees having to deal with incidents in informal settings exemplified the need for more ‘clear procedures’, as well as a form of reporting which did not rely solely on the victim's input. Haran noted how the implemental nature of harassment made it difficult to ‘nip it in the bud’ as the harasser tended to get the benefit of the doubt and this too would need to change so the behaviour is not ‘normalised’. Here is a subset of her findings:

  • Two female respondents reported very serious cases of sexual harassment
  • Four female respondents reported cases of nuissance rather than intimidatory behaviour (with most citing incidents taking place at 'out of the office' locations)
  • Two female respondents reported neither experiencing or witnessing harassment suggesting that issue was not necessarily endemic in the industry
  • One male respondent reported never being aware of sexism in his organisation
  • One female respondent reported being grabbed by a male colleague whilst a sniggering (female) colleague looked on
  • One female respondent reported that a male source working elsewhere in the media made repeated sexual overtures towards her despite polite rejection. The repeated incidents reportedly resulted in the male making attempts to discredit her professional reputation with unfounded allegations against her.
  • One female respondent reported a detailed account of workplace harassment but asked that it not be discussed at the conference for fear that her harrasser was in the audience
  • One female respondent reported being told that she had 'a nice pair of tits' and of incidents where male scientists asking young women to join them at their hotel room
  • Two female respondents reported of feelings of discrimination when applying for science journalism posts
  • One female respondent reported a conversation with a former editor of a technology broadcaster who claimed to operate informal positive discrimination in favour of women journalists to make the section more attractive to female readers.
  • One male respondent reported that a chief subeditor on a weekly science magazine appointed more women than men due to their outstanding applications.

The final speaker Priya Shetty, science journalist, editor and Huffington Post blogger with near 15 years of experience working on issues of female equality summed up on the nature of casually dismissing incidents as ‘casual sexism or anecdotes'.

A sobering and in a way sombre opening to an incredibly insightful day of discussion that followed.

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