Ad Hoc Committee on Constitutional Review: Operating guidelines

Formed just a few weeks ago, the Ad Hoc Committee on Constitutional Review has outlined its mission and operating guidelines.

Mission:

  • Primary: To evaluate what NASW — as an organization and as a community — will stand to gain and stand to lose if the Constitution is amended to allow PIOs and other non-journalists to be eligible for election to the NASW executive board (President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer).

  • Secondary: to understand more fully the feelings, experiences, motivations, concerns, and/or grievances that underlie the recent discussion of allowing PIOs or other non-journalists to be officers, and exploring more broadly how these issues might be addressed in other ways.

Article IV, Section 1:

Current language:

The elected officers of the Association shall consist of a president, a vice-president who shall be president-elect, a treasurer, and a secretary, who shall all be ex officio directors. 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. Officers who engage in such activities shall notify the Board immediately. They may remain on the Board, but the Board shall appoint another fully qualified member to carry out the officer duties.

Proposed change:

The elected officers of the Association shall consist of a president, a vice-president who shall be president-elect, a treasurer, and a secretary, who shall all be ex officio directors. Candidates shall be regular members in good standing at the time of their nomination.

The Ad Hoc Committee will:

  1. Collect feedback from NASW members by:
    1. Setting up an email address (adhoc2016@nasw.org) through which members can send in comments about the proposed amendment to the committee.
    2. Introducing question(s) in the annual membership survey to better understand the composition of the organization, types of work members engage in and likely member responses to amending the constitution or not.
    3. Conducting exploratory outreach to NASW members representing a diversity of professional activities and histories within the organization.
  2. Consult other professional associations about how they define and avoid conflicts of interest in the work of their members and officers.
  3. Consult other organizations about whether/how the proposed amendment might affect their partnerships or other interactions with NASW.
  4. Consult ethics and editorial guidelines of journalistic outlets about restrictions placed on employees and/or contributors being part of organizations that permit non-journalists to be officers.
  5. Describe the variety of work our members do in both journalist and non-journalist roles (including reporting, public information, technical writing, educational materials, etc.).
  6. Identify some possible scenarios and describe likely outcomes of each, based on the collected evidence.

The committee will report its findings to the Board no later than April 30, 2016.

The following NASW members have generously volunteered to serve on the ad hoc committee (in alphabetical order):

  • Siri Carpenter, freelance, Madison, WI
  • Doug Fox, freelance, Alameda, CA
  • Lee Hotz, staff journalist, The Wall Street Journal
  • A'ndrea Messer, PIO, Penn State University
  • Jill Sakai, PIO, University of Wisconsin
  • Nidhi Subbaraman, staff journalist, The Boston Globe

The committee members, who will determine their own structure and process, will be working hard over the next six months to explore this issue. We'll keep you updated on the committee's activities, and will publicize their report widely through nasw.org, ScienceWriters magazine, and social media.

If the change allows someone who is a 'science publicist' rathert than a science jounalist to run for office, I oppose it. We are the National Association of Science WRITERS.

I favor the proposed amendment.  Here's why.  When I joined NASW more than 20 years ago, the lines between "journalis" and "PIO" were pretty clearly drawn.  In the past 2 decades, those lines have blurred, merged and intermingled.  Is a blogger a journalist?  Is a freelancer a journalist when he/she writes for one kind of website and not when their writing appears on another kind of website?   

Also, there is a difference between a science writer writing about research at a university and a "publicist" whose job is to get that university's name in the papers.  We write about science; ergo we are science WRITERS.

Much discussion of the proposed amendment has already appeared at Undark.org. in connection with three posts.

You can find them here:

A Looming Rift In Science Journalism

Science Journalists Vs. Public Information Officers

Science Writers Board Says No To PIOs.

Paul Raeburn

I oppose the change. 

Writers who write about their employers are not producing journalism. The skill sets for PIO and independent newsroom or freelance writing are the same, in terms of wordcraft and care in research. But few PIOs would remain long if - for instance while preparing a news release - they come across corruption in the workplace and expose it or otherwise refute and embarass the bosses. The present rules say contenders for top offices must devote the majority of their time to journalism, and must cut out the p.r. while in office. "Science Writers" at the time of NASW's founding, in the days of massive print domination of the craft, meant science journalists - and easily today encompasses broadcasters and multimedia generally. NASW arose from the craft of journalism. I prefer that it continue to reflect its roots in its leadership. 

 

 

Lots of university PIOs use science writing skills, and many are very talented. But they are limited to writing about news from and about their institutions, and their writing is often, if not always, reviewed by the very people whose work they are covering.

That puts them in a strange position. They are certainly not journalists, and while they write as part of their jobs, are they "writers" in the sense of people who are free in their creativity? 

It's a difficult question. Journalists are certainly often heavily reliant upon their work and it would be hypocritical to make light of its impact and value.

NASW seems not to be a strictly journalist organization but I have to admit I have not been active at all in the organization. One reason I avoid meetings of the local DCSWA affiliate is because I am often besieged by PIO members who want to meet me and pitch me stories.

For me the question of who can be an officer is unimportant. What is important is the mission of the organization and its overall makeup. If PIOs can be members, it seems weird to ban them from office.

I favor the change. As much of my career has been spent as a media relations officer/science writer with organizational/educational institutions, I take issue with the notion that PIOs are "shills" and not serious communicators. The stories produced may be one-sided, but they are produced professionally and, for the most part, with great integrity. When I assembled news packages/kits for the American Heart Association, I often relied on freelancers who were "science journalists" and not PR professionals. Are the opponents saying that the folks I hired to write news releases -- some of whom worked professionally for news organizations -- would not qualify as science journalists?

It's a fair assumption that, quite often, PIOs are not thoroughly objective in their reporting. However, it's an equally fair assumption that some writers at even the most prestigious outlets may fill their stories with personal bias. (I was the science editor at The Washington Post when we started covering climate change, and read a lot of other people's coverage. Some of it, from name-brand media organizations, was crap that couldn't even pretend to be objective journalism.) Some may write for outlets with a specific editorial position. Some may have personal friendships with scientists they cover. Some may simply make stories up -- as has happened at both The Washington Post and The New York Times, among others.Some may produce lop-sided stories because they simply don't know what they're writing about. Some may distort the truth by engineering artifically "balanced" coverage by giving a voice to some nut case so that "both sides" are represented when, in fact, there aren't two sides at all.

Bottom Line: There is nothing about having a press card from an independent news outlet that guarantees moral and journalistic integrity or high-quality work. Nor is there anything about working as a public-information officer that automatically turns you into a hype-fountain PR hack. Both share a common purpose -- informing the public about developments in science -- and pursue it better or worse according to individual conscience, character, and standards. We're all  in this together, and NASW should acknowledge that.