Proposal to amend officer qualifications

Aug. 22, 2018


holtza's picture

I might support the amendment... when the day comes that journalists are as numerous and well-paid as PIOs and others who communicate on behalf of their employers, rather than in order to serve their readers and audiences.

In 2018, journalism is under assault. Journalists are regularly accused of peddling fake news, and federal agencies and departments are hindering our access to information. Science journalists face this crisis head on, as we contend with misinformation about vaccines, climate change, and other important subjects. 

At such a perilous moment, the correct response is not to dismiss journalism as a “niche profession.” Instead, we must defend it--and the principles on which it depends--with renewed vigor. 

The officers of NASW has been doing exactly that. In March, for example, they rightly called out the Environmental Protection Agency for shutting journalists out of a press event.  

That will not be the last time that NASW will have to stand up for science journalism.  To continue this vital work, its officers must remain free to challenge any organization that interferes with our mission of getting news to our millions of readers—even if they have to make that organization uncomfortable. The current bylaws ensure that this freedom will endure. I therefore urge all my fellow NASW members to vote against this proposal. 

Carl's point is exceptionally well taken.  PIOs are among the strongest advocates for science journalism, even as it is being practiced at the nation's newspapers, magazines and other traditional platforms by fewer and fewer people.  Members of the Board -- many of whom are PIOs -- have universally supported these statements by NASW.  As the chair of the information access committee for more than two years, I (yes, a PIO) regularly penned the letters of support and condemnation for ethical lapses in science communication that the officers and Board ratified as official statemennts.  NASW is free to challenge questionable practices now -- and has done so not just for institutions, but for journalistic lapses too, as the strong leadership on the issue of gender bias in science journalism points out admirably.  Nothing in this amendment would change that -- I fully expect that the Board and fellow officers would demand that any member with a direct dog in any hunt that comes before NASW would recuse herself on the matter at hand, and we have sufficient mechanisms in the Constitution to address that if not.  This is not about who is more moral, or more conflicted.  This is about who has the leadership skills and credibility to effectively represent the entirety of NASW's membership.  

nea2107's picture

If Rick Perry shut out journalists at a press event or proposed limits on scientific research, akin to Scott Pruitt, would you feel comfortable writing an open letter of dissent against the practices of Rick Perry and the DOE? 


lucrezia's picture

I see the proposed amendment to make PIOs eligible to be an officer of NASW has come back from the dead. I will be voting "no" this time around as well, for the reasons Carl outlines above, and I also urge my fellow NASW members to vote "no". As someone who has worn the "sci-comm/outreach" hat in addition to science journalism, I am by no means anti-PIO. It's an essential job requiring a unique skill set. But it is not science journalism. It never will be. It  simply can't be, by virtue of what it is. NASW officers represent us publicly, including to public officials. Given the current political climate, with vicious attacks on a free press and rock-bottom public trust in our profession, this is absolutely the worst time to be considering such an amendment. 

emhollan's picture

Jennifer, as has been said here and in the current discussion on NASW-Freelance, the amendment simply considers all regular members as equally qualifying for one of the four officer slots.  It does not, by any means, suggest that a non-journalist WILL become an officer.  The nominating committee has to vet and approve all officer candidates and the membership has to vote them in.  It is unfair for some members to have privileges that others do not when all pay the same membership fees.  Surely you can’t be saying that there is no non-journalist member in the entire organization that you could support for office?  Suggesting that assumes that a radical Fox News reporter, or a National Enquirer sensationalist would better represent the whole of the organization, compared to a University PIO or a freelancer who has institutions for clients.  Others have reminded us that we are the National Association of Science Writers, not Journalists.  There are existing checks and balances in the organization that protect against what you fear.  Give all members a chance to serve.

While I disagree with the petition statement that science journalism is a niche profession, I also believe that this would be a significantly smaller and less effective organization if it were the National Association of Science Journalists. Many members of our organization are not journalists. There are many forms of science communication. I am not a journalist, not a PIO, and do not communicate on behalf of an employer. But I am a science writer and joined an organization that effectively works on behalf of science writers. 

It was disheartening to me when this issue came up before to hear that a significant number of journalists would leave the organization if someone other than a journalist was allowed to be an officer. Parochialism seldom leads to improvement, in my experience. I have no desire to be a member of an organization of science non-journalists or an organization of science journalists. I would rather associate with people who communicate science in the many different ways represented by our membership. I think we would gain by expanding our focus, not separating into different silos. In reality, there are not that many of us and we need to work together.


I appreciate Steve Miller's comment above so let me clarify the wording of the rationale for the amendment. I don't think science writing is a niche market -- if anything it's expanding in some respects -- but science journalism as a paid staff position is a niche and declining beat at most traditional platforms.  That in no way dimishes its importance.

Having said that, I'm happy to reinfoce Steve's comments about belonging to, and participating fully in, an organization that eschews parochialism and tribal identity to focus on the things that unite us -- of which there are myriad.  Luckily, I can report from both the Canadian Science Writers group and the Australian Science Writers group that similar fears about journalists leaving these groups if they opened up officership to non-journalists were not realized when their amendments passed.  There was no mass exodus of journalists.  There was no mass swarming of PIOs into leadership.  The world did not end.

And that has been our experience in NASW, too, for those of us who know our history -- most of our members cannot recall the day when associate members couldn't even vote.  The same arguments about no longer belonging to an organization that gave full recognition to PIOs and other non-journalists were voiced at about the same decibel level when the last amendment to touch membership issues passed overwhelmingly in 1998, eliminating the distinction between regular (journalist) and associate (PIO, for the most part) members.  We did not hemorrhage journalist members, although that was the dire prediction. The world did not end.  

In fact we became a larger, much more robust organization. And I think this speaks to the common purpose that unites us -- compelling and credible communication about science, health, and technology.  Each of the primary membership "buckets" at NASW (journalists, PIOs, freelance) has its own set of conflict of interest issues to negotiate.  Each of us has professional standards in place to mitigate those: None of us gains from shoddy, deceptive, over hyped or credulity straining science stories, and that includes PIOs or freelance who undertake institutional writing or representation.  

I have great faith in our membership committee to grant membership to ethical, responsible prospective members.  I have great faith in the Ad Hoc Committee process to remove members who, in the language of the constitution, exhibit conduct "substantially prejudicial to the best interests of the Association." And I have great faith in the membership at large to elect competent, decent, deserving people to serve as our officers, no matter what career path they represent.  This amendment reflects that faith in our collective good judgment.  


emhollan's picture

With all due respect, to characterize this amendment as one more element in the assault on journalism is simply fear-mongering and devoid of any evidence. Yes, journalism is now facing the fiercest attacks in decades but the proper action against that is to assemble the forces in support of what we believe journalism to be and fight back, not restrict those who inherently support the dissemination of accurate facts. It has been my experience that non-journalist science communicators -- freelancers and PIOs among them -- can and do support the concept and practice of their own journalism and are not mere writer-prostitutes who pen whatever their employers direct. Each of us has had to decide on what we will and will not do and suggesting that we can be bought by an employer for a paycheck or a fee is simply unfair to hundreds of writers in NASW. Better we push for the adoption of the basic tenets of journalism by all those within the organization, rather than isolating the vast majority of members who list themselves as non-journalists. The profession is challenging enough without penalizing members who may take institutional assignments to help pay the bills. I support this amendment, not because I want a non-journalist in office, but instead because I want candidates judged fairly and equally based on their abilities and contributions. The current system does not do that. It is time for a change.

This amendment is not about whether journalism is a noble professional that deserves respect. It does. It is not about whether journalism is struggling and in some cases under attack. It is. This amendment is about what it means to be a science writer in 2018 and whether all NASW members deserve respect as valued members of the association. They do. 

By requiring officers to be journalists we are effectively treating half or more of our members as "others." They are not as worthy. Because they belong to the group labeled "non-journalists," they are inherently not capable of leading their fellow members as NASW officers. 

Science writers, journalists and non-journalists, have never had more in common than they do at this moment. Many journalists, by necessity, market their employers, their personal "brands," and their book projects and tour programs just as passionately as non-journalists represent their institutions.  Many non-journalists create engaging, truthful, balanced content for their many website and social media readers and viewers in a style and tone very similar to what journalists produce every day. 

We are members of this organization because of what we have in common not because of our differences. We value accurate, interesting, well-crafted science writing and we want to help our members, all of our members, use their talents to benefit society. 

It's time to change the NASW bylaws to match the wisdom of the founding board of the D.C. Science Writers Association in 1988. Officers do not need to belong to a particular group. Officers need to be able to lead us by advancing the ideals and goals of the organization like openness, transparency and access for reporters to scientific experts. And we need to trust our members to nominate and vote for candidates who they believe can meet that test. 



  It’s been nearly 30 years since I served as NASW president. Back then lifting the “associate member” category from NASW’s bylaws, which existed to open our meetings and such to PIOs and others who were not full-time news reporters, was a big thing and I supported it. Today, as it happens, I can hardly call myself a journalist as I haven’t tried to sell a news story for about two years. I am happily retired.

  But as soon as I get my hands on a proxy for the amendment to permit non-journalists to be among the four top officers, including of course president, I shall vote against it. Part of our mission as an organization is to defend the press against government or other infringements on its freedom to report and publish the news. The meaning of “the press” has expanded and blurred in recent decades to be sure, and there have always been sketchy “news outlets” whose independence and lack of overt bias are questionable. NASW’s name, with its embrace of “science writers,” dates from a simpler age when journalists covering science decided we need a club and science writer meant mainly being a news hound for the dailies who writes about science. Journalism was the main glue in NASW’s creation. That some journalists are biased is no reason to scrap our fundamental, seminal rules.

   It is therefore clear to me that NASW should avoid having as its leaders science writers identifiable as active agents promoting the image or activities of the outfit(s) cutting their pay checks. And while today’s free lance science writer may well take p.r. jobs as part of his or her, or her or his, output flanked by stories for more traditional, independent news outlets, suspending PIO work for a term as an NASW officer is hardly such as great sacrifice that it will drive all freelancers away from running for such office. We won’t run out of journalists under the present system. When the free press is under pressure, journalists tend to be stronger advocates for counter-measures. If this revision of our bylaws passes, chances that NASW will run short of journalists goes up.

       - Charlie Petit








I believe that the name of the organization says it all, National Association of Science Writers. Hence in the intentions of the founders of NASW the category of writers encompasses and precedes that of journalists, and they are right.

Since the advent of the digital revolution, the opportunities for divulgers of science have increased while the traditional channels for the distribution of scientific information have degraded--I am not getting here into the factors that led to the decline--to negate dignity, ethics, and competence to the professionals who, many times not by their own volition, have migrated into new and emerging media environments it is not just wrong, but also reductive and myopic. If I should use a metaphor it is akin to putting the head in the sand.

I, being a professional journalist, will be happy to vote in favor of this amendment.


Paolo Pontoniere

David_Salisbury's picture

As someone who has worked both sides of the street, I think this is something of a tempest in a teapot. But it is our teapot so it is important. Personally, I didn't consider myself a second-class citizen while working as a university science writer. On the other hand, I think the board is definitely reaching when they argue that it would represent a potential conflict of interest for NASW members if the officers worked for a research institution instead of a media company. (It's my experience that science writers of all stripes tend to be pretty d*****d independent.) In my view this is more about optics than substance. Rick Borchelt's report that there wasn't much impact when our sister organizations in Canada and Australia adopted a similar measure supports this point. I admit I haven't followed all the debate and discussion on this issue, but I wonder if alternative approaches have been given due consideration. One possibility that leaps to mind is having a co-presidency shared by a journalist and a PIO. :-)

angusrchen's picture

People with different backgrounds and experiences will prioritize different things. Therefore, I think that it's critical to consider who will serve in leadership roles of NASW, which provides support and training for its members. Where that support focuses is a direct function of who is on the board and officer roles and what their interests are. 

I heard a story from a member that when NASW members were choosing panel sessions, PIOs were basically uniformly against investigative sessions. It didn't sound like this was an insidious thing - like PIOs didn't want journalists trained in investigation to defend their institutional employers - but rather they simply weren't interested in the sessions. I think any journalist would argue that these sessions are important to training journalists and that the loss of such sessions would be detrimental to NASW's ability to support journalist members. The point of this is to show that PIOs and journalists have different priorities, and PIO leaders may not even realize that they could be sacrificing support for journalists that we have long depended upon.

You may ask - well journalist leaders may do the same to PIOs. That's true. But this amendment is not just a practical one; it is also an existential one. Who is NASW really for and who should it primarily serve? I think that NASW is a journalist organization and the greatest stance representing that is the fact that leadership roles are restricted to journalists. Should that change, NASW will no longer feel like an organization for journalists but a looser, catch-all confederation of people broadly interested in science and writing. For my own professional development, that's just not where I would choose to put my time and is not nearly as useful to me as a society first and foremost for science journalists.

I will be voting no.

emhollan's picture

I of course can only speak for myself but as to your suggestion that PIOs were uniformly against investigative stories, during the last dozen years, I’ve spoken at at least three sessions, (if not more) aimed specifically at dealing with controversial, complex and negative stories emerging from campus and in each case have advocated for blatant transparency.  The reasons are simple.  In any large organization, people are going to screw up and in such cases, the best course of action is to ‘fess up and explain how that happened and why it won’t be repeated.  The public in entitled to know, period!  Some PIOs may run from such instances but my response has always been these are times to show that the public can trust some institutions.  I handled all cases of research risk at my institution for much of my career and never lied or obfuscated.  The suggestion that all PIOs act as some kind of protective shield to their organizations is simply wrong, just as the notion that all self-proclaimed journalists are righteous.

angusrchen's picture

Hi Earle,

I wasn't insinuating that all PIOs act as some kind of protective shield to their organizations. I was actually trying to discourage people from taking that away from my message. I am not making an ethical judgment on either profession. I apologize if I was unclear. Please allow me to clarify that I am simply trying to explain my decision-making process in as objective and un-emotional way as possible. I was hearing this story secondhand but it simply sounded like the PIOs on the committee didn't value panels about investigative sessions as much and would have preferred to spend the time doing other types of panels. That's just a perspective that they seemed to share, and I think that's completely fine if that's how they feel. The point was that PIOs and journalists may see things differently, and that has an impact on our leadership. I would prefer our leadership to remain journalists, because I think they would prioritize the kind of skill development and information sharing that is useful to me as a journalist.

mzastrow's picture

Although I would call myself a journalist, I have never thought of NASW as primarily an organization for journalists. When I flunked out of grad school and joined NASW as a student member and paid my $35, I did it because I thought it would help me learn how to get paid to write about science, not exclusively by newspapers and magazines. I actually envisioned myself in more of a PIO role—although at the time I didn't even know what a PIO was or what it stood for.

But while I don't think NASW is primarily about journalism, I do think its leaders must be able to defend its members when they practice it. I am unconvinced that general journalism profession organizations like SPJ can serve this role for science journalists as well as NASW can. The president and vice-president, by the nature of the roles, are the public faces of NASW and must have the ability to be full-throated defenders of the freedom of the press on behalf of its members.

Unlike some, I think all NASW members share those values, as evidenced by the current board members who do PIO work and have put their names to some of the very statements of those values that have been mentioned in this thread. But the public-facing leadership role of articulating those values cannot be credibly filled by someone who handles communications for an institution or company that NASW members cover. And I don't see codifying that in the bylaws as establishing a class of citizenship within NASW, but simply stating the qualifications necessary for the job.

I would, however support a future amendment that restricts only the president and VP roles, and opens the secretary and treasurer positions to all members.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, I support all efforts to keep NASW united and serve both journalists and PIOs. A lot of people join NASW in similar circumstances and with similar expectations to mine—just hoping to land some kind of job in science writing. It's in the name, after all. It's not helpful to ask students or aspiring writers with no set career path to pay double dues to sign up for both an NASJ and an NASW to get access to the community that is served by the current NASW. Many, not understanding the choice, will join neither. And such a split would serve as a further barrier to members of marginalized communities that are underrepresented in science writing.

Drexel University online

ASU Earth and Space Journalism Fellowship