Majority of the NASW Board opposes officer amendment

Two years ago, NASW members rejected a proposed amendment to our Constitution and Bylaws that would alter eligibility requirements for officer candidates, allowing any member, including non-journalist members, to serve as an officer (president, vice-president, secretary or treasurer). The same issue of officer eligibility is again before the membership, having been submitted as a petition by 38 of 2,333 regular members.

We, the majority of the NASW Board, oppose the proposed amendment. We believe it would undermine NASW’s ability to fulfill its mission, as codified in our Constitution and Bylaws, to “foster the dissemination of accurate information regarding science and technology … in keeping with the highest standards of journalism.” In addition, we believe that passage of this amendment would likely fundamentally change the nature of the organization in ways that would lessen NASW’s strength during a critical time for journalism. We have not arrived at these conclusions easily, lightly or quickly. Please take the time to read the basis for our concerns.

When NASW first formed, its members wanted to “join forces to improve their craft and encourage conditions that promote good science writing.” Over time these goals have expanded to include recognition and support for all kinds of science writing, including honoring the work of institutional writers and sharing relevant best practices in and outside of journalism.

A key part of encouraging conditions that promote good science writing, however, is standing up for press freedom, a role played by NASW’s officers on behalf of all members of NASW. Having officers who are members of the press is essential for us to be most effective in this role.

The discussion over who may serve as an officer of NASW is not a question of the individual ethics of any person or job role. (NASW already has a code of ethics and set of operating principles, which the Governance Committee is examining in light of the recent discussions.) Nor is it about privileging journalists over non-journalists. NASW's membership is not binary, and our work covers a wide range of activities.

Our Constitution and Bylaws currently require that “a substantial majority of an officer's science-writing activities shall be journalism. Officers may not write press releases or otherwise act on behalf of an institution or company to affect media coverage while they serve in office.” If the president of NASW were paid to promote an institution, this would introduce a conflict of interest for any journalist who is a member of NASW and covers that institution. Fitting science writers of many different professions together in the same organization requires compromise, and requiring the officers of NASW to refrain from working to promote an institution during their time as officers is one of them.

For the past two years, the Board, Governance Committee and other committed volunteers have worked to find a path forward that recognizes the many kinds of work our members do and that promotes greater inclusivity, while also holding true to NASW’s stated mission. By proposing the same amendment that the membership rejected two years ago, the petitioners are asking us to give up on that deliberative process in favor of an approach that has already proven unpopular or unimportant to most members. (In 2016, less than a third of the membership chose to vote on the issue at all.)

Based on survey data collected by the Ad Hoc Committee for Constitutional Review in 2016, as well as conversations with dozens of members since, we believe that a substantial number of journalists, and perhaps also others, are likely to leave NASW if the proposed amendment passes. Splitting into new, factional groups is not the way forward.

We remain proud that our tent is a welcoming one and that membership continues to grow and bring in new voices. The intellectual ferment and overlap among all science writers is this organization’s strength. Let us continue to work together to find solutions that fully honor and uphold our long-held common mission.

Signed,

  • Jill Adams
  • Nsikan Akpan
  • Brooke Borel
  • Siri Carpenter
  • Laura Helmuth
  • Kathryn Jepsen
  • Seth Mnookin
  • Kendall Powell
  • Hillary Rosner
  • Jill Sakai
  • Matt Shipman
  • Emily Willingham
  • Alex Witze
  • Philip Yam
September 25, 2018

Comments

I agree with the board. I'm a freelance journalist, so I know how hard it is to keep from doing some sort of advocacy work. But during times when I haven't been able to make ends meet with strictly journalism, I have taken jobs that are quite distant, primarily working in law offices. I think opening officer roles up to non-journalists is a slippery slope. I also think the board is correct that splintering the NASW will not improve things for anybody, although I might think about leaving NASW if I thought it was trending towards PR rather than journalism. I do understand that there are many excellent writers who work in the media departments of universities and governmental agencies, but to me that automatically means those writers will always have to make their institutions look as good as possible, and that has the potential to compromise the writing. But the NASW has been a crucial part of my science writing career, and I'm certainly not ditching it any time soon.

emhollan's picture

Much of the discussion concerning the proposed amendment to allow non-journalists to be considered for office has evolved into questions of conflicts-of-interest, should a non-journalist be elected to one of the four officer posts.  Given that the board chose to, once again, voice its opposition to the amendment and do so using its sole ability to speak to the entire organization, I am sadly convinced that none of the signatories to that missive have any real concept of what conflicts-of-interest really entail!

No one expects for journalists to give up their right to vote when they take on that job.  But they are expected to (1) not allow their personal beliefs to color their reporting and (2) avoid lobbying, politicking or otherwise working on behalf of, or opposed to any issue, candidate or party.  Doing the latter can cost them their jobs!

Likewise, when an individual takes on a leadership position in an organization, they no longer can argue that their actions reflect only their own personal positions.  They gave that up when they chose to represent the membership.  Their personal and professional judgement can and should affect their decision-making on behalf of the membership but they should never work at odds against any member or group of members.

The proposed amendment grew from a grassroots movement within the organization aimed at leveling the playing field for all members, regardless of who they worked for.  Based on the dialogue on the listserves, many, many members see this as an effort towards equity.

The current statement by the board is clearly a conflict-of-interest and those who signed it should apologize to the members of NASW.

Earle

Earle Holland

Asst VP for Research Communications (ret.)

Ohio State Universit

The Board and Officers note that a similar amendment two years ago failed. Yes, it failed by a very slim margin, less than 5 percent of the 700 votes cast. And then the Board statement slams overall voter participation in that election as evidence that the membership didn’t really care about the issue much. 

Of course, every one of the members who signed that statement was elected in a contest in which many fewer votes were cast than were cast in the amendment election. So perhaps the Board’s logic is that members really don’t give a hoot who their Board and officers are?

maggiefox's picture

I have to say I do care, but, being old and feeble-minded, I cannot remember how I voted on this issue. I am getting emails lobbying for the amendment. I voted by proxy and I think maybe the wording was confusing. I don't suppose there is any way to check, or to recall my vote and cast it again? If I was confused, maybe others were, too.

Anyway I do think it's an important issue.

michelebaum's picture

I voted for the amendment two years ago and support it today. These days, I am neither a PIO nor a journalist, though I've been both over the course of my career. My current role is primarily internal communications, as well as liaising with the various federal and state agencies that fund the work of scientific investigators affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh. NASW has been useful for my professional development in many ways and, of course, it's always great to reconnect with friends at meetings.

Bottom line, we all have the same goal to bring accurate, compelling science stories to the public. This argument is disheartening. If a candidate doesn't meet your personal smell test, don't vote for him or her. It's a simple question of fairness. 

 

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