AHCJ strengthens its ethics rules on conference funding

AHCJ has strengthened its ethical standards on funding for the annual conference, enhancing the ethics code established at our inception 20 years ago to guard against undue influence by outside groups or the perception of such influence.

You can find evidence of the recent changes in the conference program and registration form:

  • We eliminated “sponsored tracks,” in which a sponsor’s name was occasionally attached to a series of related conference sessions.
  • The program now describes how panelists and field trips are selected and organized, to make clear the decisions are made by AHCJ and the journalists who organize the panels.
  • A new check box on the registration form gives attendees the option of receiving or not receiving a group of story ideas and announcements from sponsors in a post-conference email.

Our fundraising standards are already among the strictest of any journalism group, but we always listen to concerns and periodically make revisions. These latest changes result from an in-depth review conducted last year, after a few members raised questions about our relationship with conference sponsors.

AHCJ’s Finance and Development Committee, composed of professional-category members who volunteer, undertook extensive research and spent many hours hashing through the issues. We were concerned with whether conference sponsorship conferred an inappropriate opportunity for organizations to influence participants, and whether certain practices allowed for the perception that sponsors had control over the conference’s content.

To inform our discussion, committee members contacted several other respected journalism groups to find out how they finance their conferences and interact with conference funders. The committee made recommendations to the Board of Directors, which adopted the changes in September.

There are a few points to keep in mind concerning sponsors:

First, AHCJ has always restricted the types of organizations from which we will accept money. The rules are detailed on our website, but the short version is that sponsors are pretty much limited to news media, universities and academic medical centers, nonprofit nonpartisan foundations, and publicly funded entities. You’ll never find a pharmaceutical company, a device maker, or a health insurer advertising or exhibiting at an AHCJ conference.

So we’re starting out with a group already narrowly limited by ethical criteria. In contrast, few of the journalism groups we contacted have limitations on who can sponsor or exhibit — or even written rules on the matter. We also found that other groups allow donors to hang banners, e-blast attendees with press releases, or sponsor awards – practices AHCJ has always eschewed.

Second, we seek sponsors (usually schools and related academic medical centers) in the city where the conference will be held – and we move from city to city to expose members to expertise found in various parts of the country and to strengthen the regional diversity of our membership.

And third, we need and are grateful for sponsors’ support: It makes the conference a success, keeps it affordable for members, allows us to support speakers’ travel, and creates a tremendous number of fellowship opportunities for members who could not otherwise attend. Most of the journalism organizations that we contacted rely on registration fees to pay half or more of conference costs. At AHCJ, sponsorships pay for 85 percent of conference costs, which is how we are able to keep our registration fee among the lowest anywhere – as low as $175 for professional journalists.

AHCJ seeks out local host sponsors that can offer value to the conference. We want to tap into the research, clinical, and educational expertise these institutions offer.

So, we do welcome their ideas for sessions and field trips, but those suggestions are weighed along with those from the local and national planning committees made up of journalists, our members from across the country, and others who take advantage of our online suggestion form that opens each summer. Conference organizers and panel moderators make all the decisions on topics and speakers, based on the needs and interests of AHCJ members. Every panel is moderated by a journalist.

The Finance Committee also discussed field trips. These are a beloved feature of our conference in which attendees may sign up to visit local institutions to observe research in action or unique patient care. A few of those who raised ethical concerns believed – mistakenly – that only sponsors get the opportunity to display their work to our members. In fact, we have had held field trips to Veterans Affairs facilities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, museums and homeless organizations, none of which contributed financially to the conference.

After careful review and extended conversation, the Finance Committee and the AHCJ Board of Directors concluded that our methods for selecting panel topics, speakers, and field trips are fair and ethical. But we realized that the process was not widely understood. That’s why, starting this year, the program describes the process and criteria for selecting panels and field trips.

Sponsored tracks were another story. These have been offered occasionally in the past as an alternative to field trips. (About half the other journalism organizations that we contacted do offer them.) But inevitably, having a sponsor’s name attached to a session created the appearance that the sponsor was controlling the content. The committee recommended, and the board agreed, that sponsored tracks would no longer be allowed.

The committee considered one other matter. After past conferences, attendees have received an email from AHCJ thanking them for coming, reminding them to complete the conference evaluation, and offering up “additional leads and story ideas” from “key conference sponsors.”

This came about because, unlike most other groups, AHCJ doesn’t give out attendees’ contact information. So some sponsors would find people on their own and reach out with pitches in ways that members found bothersome. Offering to send out the story tips in a limited and coordinated way on sponsors’ behalf seemed to put an end to that practice.

But the finance committee and the board of directors agreed the email could be seen as AHCJ’s endorsement of the sponsor’s story ideas.

Since we realized some people might still want to receive those pitches, we decided to take a middle ground. The registration form for this year’s conference provides an opt-in: Attendees can check a box saying they “would like to receive a one-time post-conference email from AHCJ with story tips and ideas gathered from some of our sponsors.”

Those who opt in will receive an email with the pitches. AHCJ’s email reminding attendees to fill out the evaluation will go out separately.

The leaders of AHCJ take pride in our ethics rules. But we always want to remain responsive to members’ concerns and we pledge to continue our regular reviews of the policies that built the organization. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact AHCJ President Ivan Oransky at ivan@retractionwatch.com or Treasurer Gideon Gil at gideon.gil@statnews.com.

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