Governance Committee co-chairs issue response to PIO Committee letter

Response to PIO committee letter of support for the officer amendment from the Governance Committee co-chairs

What follows should not be viewed as a dissent of the PIO Committee letter of support for the amendment on officer qualifications or of the proposal to amend officer qualifications. It is an analysis of how NASW operations could be affected if non-journalists were to serve as officers.

While the proposed amendment would not immediately elevate a PIO to the position of officer, it opens this possibility during the next election in 2020. This scenario will create conflicts of interest that may prevent journalists (both staff and freelance) from serving on the board and from retaining NASW membership. NASW’s bylaws, operating principles, and code of ethics do not contain the checks needed to balance the conflicts of interests that would result from a non-journalist set of officers.

NASW needs a thorough review of its bylaws, operating principles, and code of ethics to determine if checks-and-balances can be established to reconcile these potential conflicts of interests. The governance committee has been reviewing aspects of these policies for more than a year, and a full review could take more than two years.

This letter represents a status update from Nsikan Akpan and Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato, the governance committee co-chairs.

This letter aims to outline the information guiding the governance committee, as it moves to address the questions of equality presented by the PIO committee and the proposal to amend officer qualifications.

Examples of conflict of interest pertinent to NASW:

Conflict of interest is the central issue of concern in considering the proposed officer eligibility amendment. The general idea is that PIOs are subject to conflict because, in most cases, they are paid to portray their institutions in a beneficial manner—even if the writers distribute accurate information.

Here, it is important to distinguish between “bias” and “conflict of interest.” Everyone, journalist or non-journalist, harbors biases. But, the conflicts of interest raised by PIO officers could pit their professional and economic biases against the mission of NASW.

As highlighted by the board statement in opposition to the amendment, if the president of NASW is paid to promote an institution, this scenario introduces a conflict of interest for any journalist who is a member of NASW and needs to cover that institution.

We offer a second example based on a board action. Earlier this year, the board released two letters, on March 26 and May 23, regarding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s poor treatment of the press. If the NASW president had been an EPA press employee, she/he would have been placed in a serious conflict of interest. Even if she/he had recused themselves, the president is still perceived as the public face of NASW.

These two examples represent only a small sample of possible conflicts resulting from adoption of the proposed amendment. It is conceivable that such conflicts might be resolved with explicit policies that constrain the powers of the officers in cases with direct conflicts. However, those policies would need to be drafted and deliberated before NASW potentially ratifies the proposed amendment on officer eligibility.

The proposed amendment underestimates the jeopardy caused by conflicts of interest for non-journalists and journalists in NASW.

When the PIO committee letter writes that current policy “stands to hurt the NASW of the future, limits current members who may aspire to serve the organization,” it does not consider the freelance and staff journalists who will be unable to serve on the NASW board in any capacity (as regular board members or officers) if NASW elected PIO officers. The PIO committee letter also does not account for the NASW members who will need to leave the organization if a conflict of interest is created by non-journalist officers.

The Ad-Hoc committee attempted to answer what PIO officers might mean for the general membership, by surveying editors at 12 publications: 538, The Boston Globe, Buzzfeed, National Geographic, The New Yorker, NOVA, NPR, The New York Times, Scientific American, Slate, Vox, and Wired.

But this assessment omitted the potential impacts on eligibility for the board.

Staff employees and freelancers working for several media outlets, including but not limited to The New York Times, NPR, Marketplace, ProPublica, The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, BBC, McClatchy newspapers, BuzzFeed and The Verge (a member of the Vox Media network), would not be allowed to serve on the NASW board if a perceived conflict of interest exists. Some of these outlets would also restrict its employees from being NASW members. (Appendix 2)

Generally speaking, these media outlets do not allow its journalists to "join boards of trustees, advisory committees or similar groups except those serving journalistic organizations or otherwise promoting journalism education" or permit involvement with an organization "where a conflict arises or may arise between an outside organization with which an employee is affiliated and the interests of the news organization." Under these conditions, we argue that the Ad-Hoc survey erred in including NPR in its conclusion about conflicts for members.

Good governance tries to plan for as many scenarios as possible. NASW needs explicit definitions in its policy to address these questions before a non-journalist can become an officer.

The majority of our peer organizations do not allow non-journalists to serve as officers.

The PIO committee letter cites the Australian Science Communicators and Science Writers & Communicators of Canada as examples of writing organizations with PIOs as officers. These two organizations are exceptions among writing organizations with similar makeups as NASW.

In 2016, the governance committee surveyed 15 writing organizations to compare NASW policies on officer eligibility, nomination processes and procedures for policy changes. Of these, 10 organizations responded to the question: Are officer positions open to all members?

Eight of these organizations strictly reserve their officer positions for members who spend the majority of their time as journalists—regardless of whether their membership includes press officers, students or academics. (Appendix 3)

But, a majority of these organizations maintain individual spots on their boards for non-journalist members (e.g., students, non-journalists). Most state this policy officially, while others do it unofficially.

The PIO committee letter heavily cites the 2016 NASW Ad Hoc Committee survey on officer qualifications, which does not include a representative sample of the organization.

The Ad Hoc committee survey is not representative of NASW members because only 24 percent of NASW members responded to the questionnaire. Its results are also biased, given the survey only involved members who were willing to opt-in.

This bias becomes evident when considering the inconsistent demographics throughout survey.

The Ad-Hoc survey had 718 respondents who self-identified their professions—38 percent identified as “only journalists” and 17 percent identified as “only PIOs.”

However, a smaller subset (658 respondents) offered their opinions on the proposed constitutional change and it had disproportionate number of PIOs. The proportion of self-identified journalists increased slightly (48 percent), while the proportion of self-identified PIOs almost doubled (30 percent).

In 2017, the NASW renewal survey aimed to perform a broader assessment of membership views on representation. It collected responses from 1,926 members (about 85 percent of NASW regular members) on their satisfaction with their representation in leadership, direction and programming.

Overall, a majority of NASW members (more than 60 percent) expressed their satisfaction with leadership, direction and programming. Less than 5 percent expressed dissatisfaction with their representation. The remainder (about 35 percent) expressed neither satisfaction nor dissatisfaction.

These levels of satisfaction hold across professional subgroups within NASW, including:

  • Media relations professionals (Appendix 4)
  • Institutional writers (Appendix 4)
  • Journalists
  • Freelancers who work primarily in media relations and institutional writing
  • Freelancers who work primarily in journalism
  • Staff writers
  • Freelancers, in general (Appendix 4)
  • Staff who spend significant time on freelance (Appendix 4)

A single survey question, however, does not fully encompass the nuance surrounding the proposed amendment of officer eligibility. The governance committee will continue to use the annual survey as a way poll the membership on how to best address this nuance.

The NASW board, on the whole, has a long history of being representative of its members.

The PIO committee letter says that “the majority of those who attend meetings and volunteer in myriad critical roles are not qualified to lead the very organization they support.”

The last seven iterations of the NASW board—from 2006 extending through 2020—has included a mix of non-journalists: PIO members, freelancers and educators. Moreover, the NASW board is not run like an executive branch of the government. Every board member has a significant say in guiding policy and proposals.

The proposed amendment does not solve an equality issue, as the conflicts of interest raised by a PIO officer would create further division in who can serve, not only as officers but on the board in general.

As NASW continues to evolve, the organization may need to consider, for example, a parliamentary model where the board and officers are decided by the organization’s demographics.

Next Steps:

There are many opinions about equality at the top levels of leadership. These opinions must be directly addressed, or NASW will not be able to progress as an organization.

As stated above, NASW policies and operations require a careful audit before non-journalists can serve as officers without creating conflicts of interest.

In the next two years, the governance committee will work to review NASW policy, including:

  • NASW operating principles
  • NASW code of ethics
  • The nomination process for the board and officers, with the possibility of imposing multiple candidates for officer position
  • Term limits for committee members, namely ones involved with finance, governance and the allocation of awards
  • Commit to determining whether checks-and-balances can be established to reconcile potential conflicts of interest for those holding officer positions


Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato and Nsikan Akpan

NASW Governance Committee co-chairs

Link to Appendices

October 5, 2018

Drexel University Online