Proposed amendment: Background, discussion, comments

On October 29, NASW members will vote on a proposed amendment to the NASW constitution that would change the qualifications for the positions of president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer. A lot of discussion has been prompted by this amendment, and we'd like to give the ongoing conversation a home on the NASW web site so as many people as possible, members and non-members alike, can engage in the discussion about issues that affect our community. Please note, though, that while non-members will be able to read the comments, only NASW members will be able to post.

The text of the petition to amend the constitution, which was presented to the board last fall with signatures from 39 members, is available here, and the report from the ad hoc committee that reviewed the amendment's possible impact is here.

Please take the time to read through the proposed amendment and ad hoc committee report and share your thoughts here on how you think our community in general can best respond to the needs of all its members, no matter what roles they take in their lives as science writers. We urge you to treat the discussion, and each other, with professional respect. Our hope is that the comments will set a constructive, community-building tone, and that they will focus on potential solutions to the issues identified by the ad hoc committee.

Jun. 21, 2016


helmuth's picture

Thanks very much to everyone who has put so much thought and time into questions about the future of NASW. There's a lot to discuss!

Regarding the specific question of whether we should pass the proposed amendment, here is a link to the NASW Board's statement and the main takeaway: "We as a board are unanimous in our opposition to the amendment. ... Instead of positioning ourselves for the future, however, this amendment has us staring down the past. It is, in the words of the NASW Constitutional Review Ad Hoc Committee, the wrong answer to the wrong question."

Let's of course discuss the amendment here, but let's also discuss other ways of making NASW welcoming and effective for all. 

I am not sure what "wrong question" is being answered, but I will pose the question that I find most pertinent to the discussion:  How do we get the best possible leadership team for NASW?

Having served on a number of boards, both elected and volunteer, I know that it is not easy to find people with leadership talents, who are willing to devote time and effort to leadership, in any organization. Good leadership requires certain talents and the ability to commit time an energy to the cause. I believe that limiting ourselves to selecting our leadership team from about 1/4 of the membership severely reduces our ability to choose the best team.  I know a number of non-journalists in NASW who have the right skills, have a lot to offer the organization, and who would be effective officers. This is in no way a criticism of the dedicated people who have stepped up to lead in the past and present - it is rather a suggestion that other qualified and dedicated members are out there but who are disqualified because they are not doing the right kind of work. We have an amazing talent pool in NASW and I think we do not do ourselves any favors by not tapping into that talent at every level.

We are the National Association of Science WRITERS. I have been a science writer for 17 years. I have never had the urge to commit journalism and I have turned down opportunities to become a PIO, I have my own little non-journalistic niche. To me the great value of NASW is that it is an organization of colleagues from all parts of science writing working together to achieve the same goal.

From the constitution: PURPOSE OF ORGANIZATION. This organization shall foster the dissemination of accurate information regarding science and technology through all media normally devoted to informing the public; and shall foster the interpretation of science and its meaning to society, in keeping with the highest standards of journalism. In addition, this organization shall foster and promote the professional interests of science writers.

I firmly believe that keeping the highest standards of journalism is something that we all do, whatever our role in disseminating accurate information.

I suppose it's naive of me to think that yet another perspective will help much with this issue, but let me take a go.  I'll apologize ahead of time if I'm a little blunt and for engaging in some pop psychology (and, now that I wrote the next paragraph, two Biblical references).
Before we can move forward on this -- and I am not pre-judging how we should -- I think that both camps need to have a come-to-Jesus moment about the beams in their respective eyes.

PIOs need to come to grips with the fact that, as ethical as we behave -- and it is more than possible to be an ethical PIO, in the interest of our employers it's required -- we will never dig for negative stories the way a journalist will.  That makes us, by every reasonable definition of the word, biased by design.  We can never present the full spectrum of stories, we can only cut off ones we feel wouldn't be ethical to share (poorly designed experiments, etc.).  That's good and necessary, but a chunk of the spectrum is still cut off.
Journalists need to dispense with the conceit that they know as much as they think they do about what it's like to be a PIO and what our day-to-day pressures are.  The fact is a PIO who leads with bad stories will sooner or later tar his or her employer, so we really are trying to be objective in what we do present -- and frankly, most of us have access and backgrounds that make us at least as capable of doing this as the average science reporter.  No, we're not calling for "the other side of the story" -- but that's your job, and in some science stories it's honestly questionable whether that's even the right thing to do for a journalist.

I'll note that the second bullet above does NOT necessarily help bosses in journalistic shops understand that mere association with PIOs doesn't tarnish journalists' integrity, and to the extent that this is a real problem I think we PIOs need to be more understanding that, as much as it grates, that assumption isn't imaginary and our journalist colleagues really do need to worry about it.  But, amongst us chickens, I think these two epiphanies might at least help start to break up the logjam.
Some disclosure:  I have an unusual background in that I started as a PIO but did a fair amount of freelance journalism along the way (part of my frustration with journalists' understanding of PIOs came from those days, when it was clear my freelance clients had no idea what I did for a living).  I always set, ahead of time, some boundaries with my journalistic clients:  We identify subjects and stories that are too close to my day job for anybody to be comfortable with me covering them, and I decline (or warn my editor and recuse when my own research reveals a link we hadn't appreciated) when such an assignment comes my way.  That's only happened once or twice, but it helped keep me honest.
Also, I did get the "will you leave" question about the measure failing, and my answer, reluctantly, was "no."  While I do think more PIO representation in the leadership might be a positive thing, I won't quit if it doesn't happen and I don't want anybody to think I will.  But that's not the same as being happy with the status quo, and I think we need to change this even if we decide the bylaws change isn't the way to go about it.
Two cents, take 'em or leave 'em.

michelebaum's picture

Listen, I'm very proud of the 20-plus years I spent in multiple newsrooms as a reporter, editor, and union officer (secretary, vice president, and president)--most of that time covering medicine and science. On my desk at home, I have framed the original charter of the Chattanooga Newspaper Guild, signed by Guild founder Heywood Broun in April 1937.

It was a great relationship and then it was over. Journalism left me, but I still found ways to keep writing about science and medicine as a freelancer, PIO, and in academia. It's the same skills set. What binds us--communicating science well--should be far more important than who signs our paychecks.


I do not want to see non-journalists (PIO's) as officers of NASW. The officers of NASW should remain journalists, whose employer is not a unversity or private industry.

meredith's picture

Here's a letter I sent to the board and officers that I think highlights the serious problems with the current policy.

robinhenig's picture

Hi, Dennis -- Thanks for the questions you pose in your "Research Explainer" blog post. In my understanding of the bylaws, the only activity you describe that you wouldn't be able to continue doing as an officer is writing press releases. Writing books, writing research explainers, writing articles for alumni magazines, even writing science fiction -- all of that is fine. But the bylaws state that an officer can't do work designed to affect media coverage. 

And yes, I do recognize the precarious nature of freelance science writing -- only too well! Luckily, you would have to turn down the more lucrative work of writing press releases only during the two years that you're an officer (or four years, if we're talking about the veep-to-president track). Hope this helps clarify things a bit.

So, would that prohibit an author from soliciting reviews or blurbs or engaging in interviews promoting her/his books?  Sure they are designed to affect media coverage of the book?  Or doing media tours with said book?

emhollan's picture


What about the work Dennis does in workshops aimed at helping scientists communicate better?  A large component of that is to enable researchers to more effectively explain their work, often to news media, so clearly that would be affecting media coverage if scientists' communication was better.  Can he still offer those as long as he tells scientists not to use his tips when talking to the media?


I found the board's comment that the petition was "the wrong question at the wrong time" very cogent.

As a long-time freelancer, I have seen a growing split of NASW into three primary groups: employed journalists, freelancers, and PIOs. Freelancing in this sense is a catch-all category, not simply journalism. I write journalism for magazines, but I also write educational material about science and technology. I've written a textbook on fiber optics for technicians, and books for middle school kids about optics, coastal erosion, and mass extinctions. I've written tutorial articles and given webcasts on laser technology. And there are a lot of things I haven't done.

The interests of all three groups overlap in the subjects we cover in science and technology, and in the craft of writing and editing. But they diverge in many other areas. In particular, freelancers are concerned about running a business and making a living writing about science. We need information on markets for our work, on contracts, on pay rates, on negotiations, and on strategies for running our businesses. We need to learn about new trends such as self-publishing. We need to think and talk about issues such as the virtues of writing in long form vs. short form, and how to deal with publications that pay peanuts to freelancers.

I have been a member of the freelance committee for several years, and we have been addressing those issues, but I don't feel we always have been well supported by NASW. I was particularly disturbed when a contracts workshop at ScienceWriters 2015 in Cambridge was essentially neutered at the behest of counsel in a way that has never been adequately explained. Why can't NASW make model contracts available when realtors' boards can devise model apartment leases? I know of two other authors organizations that issue model contracts with recommended terms -- the Authors Guild and the Science Fiction Writers of America. The Cambridge meeting had some freelance-oriented panels, but not enough.

The CASW meeting afterwards was largely useless to me as a freelancer. Alan Stern's talk on the New Horizons mission to Pluto was great, but it wasn't going to be a story. These days the publications that I write for expect freelancers to pitch original stories, not ideas that were pitched to a whole group of science writers at CASW. Some sessions looked like they might have been useful background, but not something worth traveling to attend. (I was at CASW because I live in the Boston suburbs.) I may not be typical, but I know I am not the only one who skipped most of CASW.

The right question for NASW is how can it best meet the needs of its whole changing membership. For those of us who freelance part time or full time, that means helping us make a living. Given the realities of the changing marketplace, journalists and PIOs also have to worry about making a living. That doesn't mean focusing narrowly on business; it means helping us to understand and develop the skills we need for today's marketplace and tomorrow's. That's the forward-looking question NASW needs to answer first.

I think it's useful for those of us for whom this conversation is not deja vu all over again to (re)acquaint ourselves on the conversation that took place at our 1998 member meeting.  Then, as now, there was no plan forward for differentiating "journalism" from many other kinds of "science writing," and we were left with "we'll know it when we see it" and the decision was remanded to the membership committee on a case-by-case basis.  I think the full membership can make that determination just as well as a hand-picked committee, frankly, but the issue remains that 1) the constitution did not then and does not today specify what journalism is or what journalistic standards are and 2) the landscape around this changes hourly. 

While much of the attention here has been on journalists v PIOs, it is in fact freelancers whose job lives stand the greatest chance of being adversely affected by arbitrary guidelines of what it means to be doing "journalistic" work, as the dialogue below illustrates. 

I have redacted some of the conversation from the 1998 business meeting that was NOT directly about the issue of what is a journalist as defined by the constitution.

I also want to give a shout out to Perlman's prescience that this would come up again in the organization.  Not five years later as he prognosticated because we always retained hope that leadership would come back to redress this issue without being pushed into doing so. 


Discussion [from the minutes of the 1998 business meeting[

Q. Does the Constitution define which freelancers are journalists and which are not?

HARRIS: "The definition of journalist is altered slightly. (Reads proposed definition:) 'Journalist membership shall be restricted to those persons principally engaged in the preparation and interpretation of science news for recognized news media outlets and journalistic books. Provided that no person shall be admitted to journalism membership whose efforts are primarily directed to the promotion of a product or an organization.'"

Q. Do you recognize journalism on the web pages?

HARRIS: "That's an excellent question. I didn't read the next sentence, which is: 'The membership committee shall determine what constitutes a recognized news media outlet.' Because this is a very difficult issue and we do recognize that there are web pages that are clearly journalistic enterprises and web pages that are clearly not journalistic enterprises, and who knows what there will be after the web. We clearly do want to maintain flexibility in order to define that because the definition of media is changing."

RAEBURN: "One of the things we talked about was to strengthen the role of the membership committee to make some of these decisions" because after a lot of discussion, a definition "was difficult or impossible to codify."

HARRIS: "I think it's a real interesting issue regarding our profession as a whole and it's not something that we can codify and set into words, but it is clearly something that we need to continually hash out with whomever you guys are electing to be on the board after I am long gone."

Q. Will you refine it a little bit better? What is the definition of "primarily?" Is that by proportion of income or proportion of time?

HARRIS: "We are very sensitive to the fact that freelancers do not want to be told turn over your financial sheets and tell us how much money you've made, or how little money you've made. Yet strictly defining it by time is also not necessarily a realistic thing, either. So, again, we punt. I can not imagine an occasion where we actually have to get into financial data, but there may be a dispute where that's the best way to do it ... We can't write in that it's only based on time or only based on money. I think this is a time of transition for this whole profession, and we have to rely on personal judgment. For the membership as a whole, it's basically done on an honor system." At the time members pay their dues they will designate what category they belong in based on what they did the previous year.

Q. The Society of Environmental Journalists used the definition "someone who writes for the general public."

HARRIS: "We looked at that definition and we didn't like it because I would argue that Drugs could be an active member of SEJ — the Office of Drug Reports. Yet I don't think anybody in this room would consider that real journalism. For us it was too broad a definition and not very satisfying."

Q. Are editors excluded from the journalist category?

HARRIS: "We certainly are not excluding editors as journalists." Broadcasters such as those who cover science for NPR also consider themselves journalists.

Q. Why not use a percentage of the membership as a quorum at the annual meeting rather than a set number?

SEVERAL OFFICERS: Agreed that might be the better way.

Q. What is a journalistic book?

HARRIS: "Clearly there are people who write books that we would all look at and say this is a piece of journalism. ... A lot of things that are just long, long investigations ... Commonly chapters are spun off into journalistic outlets ... Many people write books for a corporation — something in particular that we would not consider a journalistic enterprise ... A work of fiction by a member would not qualify as a journalistic book."

Q. "What about feature books — How great the universe is? The cosmos? There are a lot of writers and people in TV doing things that are really features and are not investigative journalism or journalism by any means."

HARRIS: "Like so many other things, it's a real question of judgment. And I did not mention, but we do intend to include an appeals process. If the nominating committee says, 'That's not journalism,' you can say, 'I want to ask the board what the board thinks.' And the board will be able to hear the appeal."

DAVID PERLMAN: "We are the National Association of Science Writers. That doesn't necessarily mean journalists. We do an awful lot of other kind of writing about science."

HARRIS: "Absolutely."

PERLMAN: Why worry about whether the book is a journalistic book?

RAEBURN: "The category is for the writer, not for the book. There are plenty of features in newspapers. I don't know if somebody who edited the recipes column in a paper would be a journalist. There are lots of things in newspapers that might not be journalism. It was hard for us to try to find a way to identify all these possibilities. So we figured you know it when you see it. We hope the membership committee knows it when they see it."

HARRIS: "If somebody writes a book that is commissioned by a university to say all the wonderful things that the university did, should that person be a journalist member of the organization? Or should that person be a science communicator?"

PERLMAN: "What is the other 51 percent of that person's time spent doing?" What if he's doing journalism?

HARRIS: "Yes, well then that certainly would answer the question for us. If that would clearly be the case, then that person would be clearly classified as a journalist."

TAMMY POWLEDGE: What is the problem with categorizing a member based on time spent?

JOE PALCA: "Part of it was that PR work pays a lot better. So you can work 10 minutes for IBM and get a thousand bucks, and you can work six months on an article for New Scientist."

Q. But what difference does that make?

PALCA: "Because in those 10 minutes you are committing yourself to IBM because they're giving you a lot of money, versus the six months that you spend as a labor of love preparing an article for New Scientist. Am I not making it clear?"

HARRIS: 'The expectation is that time is often the primary determinant. It may not always be. And we don't want to tie the definition down to always having to be time. But, yes, my expectation is that is how somebody should appropriately take the first cut at judging how somebody's spending their work time."

SHURKIN: Can you plead poverty?

RAEBURN: "That's understood."

CHARLIE PETIT: These definitions need to be kept "very loose. The committee will get bogged down into protests and appeals if we don't ... The real intention of different categories is (separating) agents for a university or a company and those who are regarded as active or journalist members. It's very difficult to tell me 'You know one when you see one, but it isn't easy to write it down.'"

HARRIS: "And I agree with you completely, which is why the membership committee is not going to police the membership. People who are members are going to be asked to categorize yourself, based on how we lay things out, and leave the judgment in your lap. The only time when this is going to become an issue is when somebody wants to run for the board, and then the question is actually up to the nominating committee to determine whether that person really belongs in the category that they have selected for themselves."

Q. Does the constitution specify a membership committee and how many people are on it?

HARRIS: "Yes, it's in the constitution, but the number is not specified. Maybe we should .

PALCA: "As the person who is now going to chair that committee, it is my intention to ask people to categorize themselves, because I do feel that there has to be a lot of latitude. The reason I was opposed to doing anything more to codify it in the constitution is that we're talking about a moving target. Our profession is changing. The nature of publishing and journalism is changing. The whole world is changing. And the things we say in 1998 may not seem appropriate even in two years. So, I'm assuming that everybody comes to this organization in good faith ... and when they apply for a membership category, they're (using) the best judgment they can. And it's only going to be in those rare circumstances when somebody seems completely out of line to me, and I don't even know how I'm going to identify those people, except by looking through the lists of how people come in, that there will be any need to change them."

LARRY KRUMENAKER: Why can't we open up the election process and let all members vote for the seven journalist board members and the four science communicator board members, instead of having journalist members vote for journalist candidates for the board and science communicator members vote for science communicator candidates for the board? [REB notes:  The state of play at the time was that active members voted for active Board members, and associate members voted for associate Board members]

HARRIS: "What do other people think about that idea? (Repeats it.) (APPLAUSE) Is there anyone who does not think that is a good idea. I hear good support for that."

KNUDSON: "We discussed that in the board and the board turned it down."

HARRIS: Agrees that the board discussed it earlier, but that there was no actual vote on it or anything else, except one issue, because the board tried to reach a consensus of opinion rather than hold votes.

BORCHELT: Go back and look at what we're changing. This is an infinitely better document. The fact that we've come to this level of consensus is nothing short of amazing.

PETIT: "In the role and function, the rights and privileges of the members of this organization have definitely come to some definite changes." Why?

HARRIS: "Let's discuss that right now."

RAEBURN: "I might just add one clarification. Under the current proposal, prior to Larry's comment, journalists vote for journalists and communicators vote for communicators. So, that's the current proposal."

HARRIS: "I would like to point out one other significant difference that is maintained in the constitution, which is what happens when you amend the constitution. This still gives journalists veto power over changes in the constitution, which would disappear if you had one membership category. I think that's an important distinction."

PERLMAN: "I'm still puzzled about this science communicator business, because reporters are communicators, too."

HARRIS: "Of course."

PERLMAN: "And book writers are communicators."

HARRIS: "Of course."

PERLMAN: "Book writers can be journalists, and how do you define whether a book is journalistic? "

HARRIS: "I agree it's an imperfect term."

PERLMAN: " I just want to make a prediction that five years from now we will be amending the constitution again."

HARRIS: "Well, I'm prepared to do that, but my philosophy is let's see where we have consensus now, and let's go with that."

MITCH WALDROP: With regard to the differences you just listed that still appear in the constitution, it seems to me that all those are functions of the nominating committee. The nominating committee picks the slate for officers and members at large. "What are people so afraid of would happen if you had just one membership category?"

HARRIS: "People are afraid that the organization might become overtaken by PIO's, by flacks. (responds to a few shouts.) Look, I'm not saying it's rational."

Q. Why should someone who has years of experience as a science writer at a university have less to offer than a first-year journalist?

HARRIS: "The fundamental words of the organization (are) that we are fostering the dissemination of accurate information through all media normally devoted to informing the public, in keeping with the highest standards of journalism ... Everybody in this organization — journalists and non journalists — is supposed to do that, absolutely. The question is, who is carrying the torch to make sure we are maintaining the highest standards of journalism? The answer is that our founding fathers said it should be journalists, and we are going to maintain that tradition in this organization."


HARRIS: "If we were a pure journalistic organization, we could really enforce that, but we are an organization of science writers and we embrace a much larger group than that. We have to bear in mind that journalists are a subset of this organization." (Calls for two more questions.)

Q. "Could you tell us what the time frame is?"

HARRIS: "I'm going to put together a draft that I believe reflects what we've been trying to achieve. I'll send it around to a few people to make sure they think it's what we want it to be. Then in a couple of months — a month or two maybe it will take — I'm going to post it on the NASW web site. Then ... everyone can look at it. Everyone can comment. We will take this conversation live over cyberspace and get more feedback."

Q. As somebody who has spent many years on both sides of the membership, I think we need to find ways to recognize work done by the other half of the members — such as good science writing at universities.

HARRIS: We discussed that and Joe promised to take it up next year.

Q. What is the genesis of having non-journalists in NASW?

HARRIS: "I think it's recognized from the beginning that there's always been an important symbiosis between journalists and people like public information officers in this field ... We all have generally the same interests and goals. We have different duties by virtue of the professions that separate us. But we have a lot in common. And I believe that is really why the organization was named not the National Association of Science Journalists, but the National Association of Science Writers, to recommend this broader community." <<


meredith's picture

Here's my blog post responding to Robin's answers to my questions on officer eligibility:

I floated this idea on -talk (I think) and got no response. Perhaps that reflects its value...

I think the four leadership positions should be open to all NASW members, rationed as follows: Two members should be journalists. One member should be a PIO. One member should be a full-time freelance, engaged in whatever mix of gigs they like.

I think this solves the organization's problems regarding the current restriction, affirms the importance of PIOs and freelances to the organization, and will better serve the membership as a whole.

emhollan's picture

Thanks Richard for making that suggestion, but I'd suggest upping the stakes a bit to eliminate the tiny steps that NASW seems more inclined to make.

Why don't we simply ignore who's paying for our science writing and focus on having a real election.  Currently, for officers, the nominating committee selects a single candidate per office, so it's not really a true election. There are always more board candidates than board seats but never for officers.  Let any member in good standing announce their candidacy and credentials and let the membership make a true selection. In that case, if a candidate has some questionable baggage, then the membership can simply not support him/her, but instead support a better candidate.

What worries me about your suggestion, respectfully, is that it ignores people who don't fit neatly into one of the three candidates.  Many members do a combination of roles and maintain their high journalistic/ethical standards in each.  But because of the overlap, they wouldn't fit your scenario.

Our current system perpetuates closed decision-making as to officer candidates by a nominating committee that has no oversight by the membership, since its members are named by the sitting president who is/might be inclined to perpetuate the historic ascendency to office.  For all our shared journalistic beliefs, having an electoral system that operates in secret, and that offers only a single candidate per office, seems hypocritical in the extreme and not reflective of what the more outspoken of us -- including me -- have argued that we stand for!

Earle Holland

MikeC's picture

Having spent 25 years floating between the labels of journalist and institutional science writer** (more as the latter), I find myself looking for appreciation and recognition more than a title or a chair.

I was all-in for Rick's amendment when I arrived at the meeting in Cambridge last fall. But then a few people gave compelling examples of how NASW might be comprised occasionally if the president were attached to an institution or profit-making company. I walked away thinking that while such moments of conflict are exceedingly rare, the damage to credibility from even one such conflict of interest would outweigh the good that comes from having PIOs and such in the top spots.

But I didn't come to write about that. Instead I want to offer a twist...a different way of valuing those of us who cannot wear the "pure" journalist hat. Create some recognition for us.

I know more earth science that 95 percent of the writers who cover my field. I regularly read breathless news stories about "discoveries" that are non-discoveries or that were made decades ago. I watch many a web site take my "instutional" science writing, repackage it (barely), and re-post it on their profit-making pages (and I watch these people call themselves journalists). I have been a judge for several science writing awards, and I have read many an entry and thought: "damn...XX writer from my institution wrote a better piece than this."

But those of us working as PIOs or instutional writers have no real awards or recognition that I am aware of. I have read many university news stories and many a federal agency magazine or web articles that were at least as good as the "award-winning" journalism I have read.

So make a home for us. Create awards and recognition for the best institutional writing...the best press release...the best informational web page.  At least for me, I want to be valued and recognized. I have people working for me who are damn fine reporters and researchers and data visualizers...damn good explainers of fundamental and complex science. And isn't that what all of us are supposed to be doing, regardless of the label?

I don't want to be the president of NASW. I just want my association (member since 1994) to do more to recognize -- in a formal way -- the work my colleagues and I are doing.


**  I intentionally use the term "institutional science writer" because for most of my years, I have worked as a magazine writer and editor inside of science institutions. I don't write press releases; I don't shield scientists from reporter; I am not required to sell or spin a product. In fact, in my current job as a managing editor, I have a ridiculous amount of autonomy and independence to write without satisfying the bill-payers and without seeking permission. I am guessing I less beholden to my overseers than anyone writing for Rupert Murdoch.

I suspect that there are many of us who apply all of the journalistic principals and do just as much as the deep reporting as our more traditional colleagues. We just happen to take paychecks from universities or science agencies.



So, I have heard this argument a number of times, that the membership would elect the PR head for Monsanto or the spokeswoman for PETA if the amendment passed. I have much greater faith in our members than that. More, in fact, than in a nominating committee hand picked by the reigning president, no matter how well-intentioned. 

And by the way, nobody seems to worry that the members today could elect Rupert Murdoch or Jeff Bezos if they wished. 

emhollan's picture

Michael, a half-dozen years ago or so, I was tasked by then NASW president Paul Raeburn to explore the possibility of NASW awards for those members who don't quite fit the current prerequisite for the organization's awards.  After much discussion with PIOs, journalists and others, I submitted a report back to Paul and the board with recommendations for such recognitions.  I was promised it would get due consideration but in the end, the board chose to ignore the proposals and any suggestion of recognition for anyone other than those in the Science In Society awards.  Many members offered ideas and discussion, including some who've commented over this issue as well.  Frankly, I was not surprised by the decision that came since it fit the pattern of all such moves to bring equity across the membership.  Today's issue is no different.  And the position of the officers and board seems to be unchanged as well.

I've been a NASW member since '79 or '80 and have consistently argued for recognition based on the quality of writing with little regard for who pays the bills.  Like you, I was lucky enough to have earned a level of editorial freedom and autonomy exceeding that of reporters in most newsrooms, both for myself and my staff of writers.  I know many other PIOs who approach that level of license to write great science.  Unfortunately, the time for alternatives to the proposed amendment has long passed.  Until all members are assured of equal treatment, we can't make progress on other challenges.  I no more want some token PIO award than I do to hold office in the organization.  But the current system is a hypocritical anathema to what we believe journalistic standards require.

Why an amendment, and why now?  I’ve been asked this question often in the three years I’ve been talking seriously with the Board, the officers, and the rank and file about an amendment to open up the officership of NASW to members other than bona fide journalists:  Why does it matter?  Is there a problem to solve?  Is there a reason to risk hard feelings?  Is the time “right” for NASW to do this?

I thought I might take a few minutes to outline the events and actions that will bring us to San Antonio for this vote, and why it comes up at this time. 

In 1998, NASW officially ended its two-class system of membership, recognizing that “associate” members (non-journalists) comprised a much larger category of membership than “active” (journalist) members.  President Richard Harris at that time estimated the number of journalist members working for traditional press outlets at about a quarter of the membership and dropping.  That trend has continued. 

But to make the move more palatable to the bona fide journalist member minority, the Board offered an amendment – that I and most other PIOs supported at the time in order to move the issue forward – that made all members of NASW equal in every respect but one.  The compromise at the time was that “a substantial majority of an officer's science-writing activities shall be journalism.”

The hitch is that journalism is never defined in the NASW constitution, nor does NASW recognize a single, simple definition of journalism.  So from the get-go, and over the past two decades, who qualifies to hold office under this rubric has been muddled, with different Boards and different officers deciding differently on a case-by-case basis.  We have had officers who were elected whose client list included pharmaceutical and organizational clients at the time of their election.  We have had officers who wrote annual reports for university and institutional clients while in office.  And as a recent query to the officers by Dennis Meredith pointed out, who qualifies and who doesn’t in our complex career landscape is a matter of considerable ambiguity.  And there lies the crux of the issue that we will consider in San Antonio.

The Board in considering this amendment has observed that this amendment is the “wrong answer” to the “wrong question.”  I’m not sure what questions they had in mind when making this statement.  The “question” is whether NASW equally represents all its members and their professional aspirations, or whether the leadership still believes (despite the 1998 vote, and the seismic changes in the field of science communication) that really we’re the NASJ – the National Association of Science Journalists.  And that for me is the question:  Are we united by our commitment to sharing science and technology and its social implications with the broader public, or are we separated by the means we use to accomplish that sharing?  This is the “right” question:  Whom does NASW serve?  The answer for the past 50 years has been, it serves journalists first, and the rest of us only as long as it doesn’t call into question the primacy of science journalism. 

Yes, we all share a respect for science journalism and a desire to see it flourish – but we also should share a concomitant respect for other forms of science communication and a desire to see them flourish.  To do this, NASW need not demean or diminish other forms of science writing – freelance for outlets other than purely journalistic enterprises, public information, education, and museum practice among them.  Valuing our diversity does not mean we devalue journalism. 

Nor am I so naïve as to realistically think that PIOs and freelance and journalists are all equally free to fully avail themselves of investigative journalism techniques in their daily jobbing lives – but this also constrains all but a handful of NASW’s current membership.  Freelance writers – whether they identify as journalists, or PIOs, or science writers – comprise the largest single category of membership in NASW.  To constantly hold out the threat that something they might do would scotch their chances to serve NASW as an officer, depending on who is making the decision and when, perpetuates professional angst for the very members who already carry a disproportionate burden of career uncertainty. 

Many of my colleagues, journalist and non-journalist alike, think that my interest in this amendment is make PIOs eligible to hold office.  And while that could be an outcome if the amendment is approved, I think it will be an even greater boon to our freelance members, whose work is increasingly “blended” between journalistic and other science writing modes, and for which they have currently little or no guidance about what actions might bar them from professional service as an officer in NASW.  The gray areas have gotten grayer, and the number of our members in that gray area has grown exponentially since 1998.  The best the Board and officers can offer now is a version of “we’ll know it (journalism) when we see it” and an expectation that these decisions will be made on an ad hoc basis and might be decided differently by different people in a position to adjudicate fitness for holding office.

A number of NASW members have also raised concerns that this amendment could open up the ranks of NASW office to slick PR types from Monsanto or PETA or Pharma that would cast the Association into disrepute.  This concern reflects a very low level of confidence in our membership committee, who would have to admit this person to membership first; and on the nominating committee who would put such a candidate forward for office; and in the full membership, who would have to vote this person into office.  I have more trust in the sanity of our members than that.  We also have sufficient safeguards in the constitution to remove members whose conduct is impeachable.  But that this question gets asked in the context of this amendment suggests that any journalist by definition is incapable of bringing dishonor to NASW, and I think we’ve had enough recent high-profile examples to the contrary to suggest that every membership category in NASW carries the risk of harboring bad actors – that the faint odor of opprobrium attaches only to PIOs is deeply naïve and deeply insulting to those of us who are not journalists. 

This leaves the issues of whether an amendment is the “right answer.”  Yes, in my estimation it is, but I don’t kid myself in thinking that an amendment is itself sufficient to remedy the clear desire among some of our journalist members that NASW remain a journalism club, that its career support should be primarily weighted toward career journalism, and that PIOs in particular only belong to NASW in order to hang out with the cooler kids at recess.  The Board and officers have promised intensive “listening sessions” before we convene in San Antonio in an attempt to address this rift, and I can only presume they are underway and meeting with success as the meeting is a bare three months away.  These listening sessions, if they occur, should proceed in parallel with a move to adopt the amendment.

But I don’t believe that the amendment, whether adopted or defeated, will affect the underlying sentiments of the membership.  I am heartened that for some three-quarters of our members this is an issue of such low salience that they didn’t even bother to weigh in on it when the Ad Hoc Committee asked them to.  Most of the members I talk with, especially younger recruits to the field, frankly wonder what all the fuss is about, and puzzle over why this anachronism still exists.  A vanishingly small minority of members on both sides of the issue responded that they feel strongly enough about this to suggest they might leave the organization depending on the outcome of the vote. 

At the end of the day, what drives me now is the hope that in 2018 -- some 20 years after the first successful vote in NASW to recognize that the science writing world as we know it was not the same as it was at our founding in 1934 -- we will truly be able to say that we are a national association that cultivates, supports, and promotes science writers equally across the landscape of science communication.  It’s just not right that more than half our members pay dues, organize workshops, volunteer time and effort on awards, and otherwise contribute to the success of NASW but will never be able to serve as one of its officers.  That to me is the single most compelling reason to adopt this amendment.  And the onerous, discriminatory nature of the status quo shifts, for me, the burden of proof onto its defenders:  NASW should have to defend retaining the barrier to service if it is to remain; the default in all cases should be democracy, inclusion, and full fraternity.

This change or one like it will happen, if not this year with this vote then eventually, with another petition and another vote, or better still with the same kind of leadership the Board and officers showed in 1998.  It will happen as those of us who can only see things in black and white cede the leadership of NASW to a new generation who have long since moved beyond labels and litmus tests.  It should happen in San Antonio.



bluepearmain's picture

I am strongly opposed to this proposed change but I fear the horse left the barn on the bigger issue long ago and there's no catching it. Maybe I'm an old fart. I'm definitely old school in believing that despite all the upheaval and blurring of lines in and around journalism over the past two decades there remains a fundamental and crucial distinction between independent journalists on the one hand and PIOs and others who work in the service of an institution, NGO or corporation on the other, and that NASW's intergity depends on recognizing that distinction. This is not meant as a slap at that second group, they play an important role, but their interest is fundamentally different from the interests of journalists and journalism, and to the extent that they play a role in governing NASW the organization risks creating the perception, and perhaps the reality, that it's influenced by commercial, political and/or advocacy interests rather than the interests of impartial reporting. That distinction has been eroding within NASW for a long time, but this change risks competely erasing it, and would change the organization into one that I could no longer support or be a member of.

dcbill07's picture

If we are an organization of science writers and make no further distinction (and I don't think we should) then the question becomes how best to ensure that no one major subgroup wrest control over the direction of NASW as a whole. To that end, we must look closely at how we support and advance the interests of all the various types of members. Quotas for the executive board are a good idea, perhaps, but so is a deliberate look at the various committees and the work they do. We can always do better. There would be nothing wrong with both helping PIOs communicate better with journalists and helping journalists dig for the kinds of stories that might ruin a PIO's day, week, or more. We live with these tensions anyway and still have respect for one another as colleagues. As an editor, I can decide for myself whether any given freelancer is the right person for a job. If the freelancer is dishonest in disclosing his or her potential conflicts--it's on them. If, as a journalist, I have behaved unethically, I am sure I will hear from the PIO and others. If the PIO is blocking me or lying to me, trust me--I am going to find out. We are stronger united than divided. We all value one another's work and we all strive to be conscientious and ethical professionals. With that as a guiding light, anyone seeking to disrupt our values won't find haven in NASW. 

In discussions of the upcoming amendment vote, many have raised the more basic question of how science journalists and PIOs can possibly even coexist in the same organization. I offer the following thoughts as one response.

This past summer, journalists worldwide filed stories about how doctors who received free meals from drug companies were more likely to prescribe those same companies' drugs, even when less-expensive options were available. These stories placed the medical profession in an extremely unflattering light, and depicted a state of affairs that is clearly bad for patients.

More recently, a story appeared that described how white Emergency Department patients were twice as likely as black patients to be prescribed opioid drugs for certain types of pain, even though opioid abuse is more common among whites than blacks.

Another showed that the price of a new class of anti-cholesterol drugs is unsustainable, and would need to be reduced by at least 70 percent to be affordable within the US healthcare system.

So how did most journalists find out about these stories? Most likely from a UCSF PIO.

But why would an office like ours publicize such information, when the institution that pays our salaries not only employs doctors, but also has many relationships with pharmaceutical companies?

Because it's one fundamental mission of academic medicine to continually question, critique, and disrupt the status quo—sound familiar?—and it's our job as PIOs to support that mission.

This is not an isolated example. Many serious problems in medicine and in the life sciences that journalists regularly report on, including

  • Health disparities
  • Overtesting, overdiagnosis, unnecessary treatments
  • Underrepresentation of women and people of color in medical research
  • The reproducibility crisis
  • Unscientific, irresponsible public-policy responses to pandemics
  • Misinformation surrounding vaccines
  • The high cost of medical care
  • The overuse of antibiotics, and antibiotic resistance
  • The need for open access to the scientific literature

and countless others were first brought to light at academic medical institutions like ours, and our researchers strive every day to find creative and equitable solutions to these problems. In helping to spread the word, PIOs play a small part in advancing those solutions.

This crucial distinction between the sort of work done by science PIOs and that done by PR people at Acme Widget Corporation has been largely ignored in the current back-and-forth. Instead, science PIOs have been stereotyped as having the same sort of "circle-the-wagons" mentality seen in other spheres, which is simply not accurate.

Of course it's our job to publicize the work of our researchers. But it's important to keep in mind that many of the most informed, cogent, and persistent critics of science and medicine reside within our own walls. So critiques of medicine-as-usual don't need to be pried out of institutions like ours—we're happy to talk about them, because that's what we do.

These thoughts are based on my experience in academic medicine, where I’ve been both a science writer and PIO for the last 12 years or so, but I suspect they’re broadly applicable.

Drexel University online