A Looming Rift in Science Journalism

A new report suggests that a roiling debate may tear apart one of the country’s oldest professional journalistic organizations.


The National Association of Science Writers (NASW), founded in 1934 as one of the nation’s first professional journalism organizations, is in the midst of an existential crisis, and a report released this week suggests that the internal strife could well tear it apart.

The full report can be downloaded here.


Dated May 16th, but released to NASW members only on Thursday, the report comes from an ad-hoc committee formed last year to consider a change to the organization’s constitution. That change would allow anyone among NASW’s more than 2,300 dues-paying members – which has grown to include not just reporters and editors, but communications personnel representing a range of academic institutions, government agencies, and non-profits – to serve as governing officers on the organization’s board.

To date, those positions are reserved only for professional journalists, although board seats are accessible to all members.

The committee analyzed survey responses from 658 NASW members, as well as 12 letters from former NASW presidents, and 39 letters from “science writers,” a group that could include writers who identify as journalists, those who identify as public information officers (PIOs), and even some who identify as both — or neither.

The survey responses showed a clear divide: 79 percent of PIOs polled said they supported the constitutional change, while half of all freelance journalists, along with 44 percent of staff journalists, were against the proposal.

The differences in opinion on the matter have a long pedigree. After all, while the two professions are generally understood to have a common interest in accurately communicating science to the public, they can often have competing agendas. Journalists, for example, are nominally committed to shedding a full and clear light on the activities of scientists and the institutions, companies, and agencies they represent. PIOs, meanwhile, might sometimes welcome that light, but they are also obliged to protect the interests and reputations of the institutions that pay their salaries. This can often mean keeping prying journalists at bay, or spinning information in order to keep their employers in a positive light.

PIOs and their supporters argue that the hard lines that used to define these professions no longer pertain in the modern era, and that in any case, the number of NASW members who consider themselves journalists alone is vanishing. “You can’t define journalism and you can’t define journalist,” said Karl Bates, the director of research communications at Duke University and long-time NASW member. “So why are we hanging our bylaws on that?” If fewer and fewer journalists fill the NASW’s ranks, he added, “why have the leadership of the group held by a shrinking minority?”

But that “shrinking minority” maintains a deep and abiding opposition to the proposed constitutional change, and the NASW report seemed to suggest that a significant departure of membership could follow any ascension of PIOs to the organization’s top leadership slots. In an email sent this week to members, the NASW called the report “comprehensive, thought-provoking, and, frankly, troubling” because of its divisiveness. The organization said that it would be forming another committee to host focus groups around the country, and that it would release another survey to gather more feedback.


“If journalists start to leave, over time what begins as a trickle might become much more than that,” said Dan Fagin, director of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program. “This could create kind of a spiraling effect.”

Fagin, an advisory board member for Undark, said that in his experience serving as president and board member of Society of Environmental Journalists, another professional organization, he has witnessed how even small issues can have big consequences within a voluntary group. He worries that the fallout within NASW could be much bigger since the officer question is so important to so many members on both sides of the question. “There’s something to be said for moving really carefully with consensus, and one thing that is quite clear is that there is no consensus in opening officer positions to non-journalists.”

Fagin also emphasized that The Society of Environmental Journalists does not allow non-journalists to serve as officers on its governing board.

Joe Palca, a science reporter for National Public Radio, was president of NASW between 1999 and 2000, which coincided with another constitutional change — one that allowed PIOs to gain full membership in the organization in the first place. “It used to be that you were a full-fledged member if you were a science journalist and an associate member if you were a public information officer,” Palca explained. Back then, he said, “it was relatively easy to understand who was strictly a journalist and who wasn’t. But times have changed. I no longer consider it to be a professional organization of science journalists like it used to be.”

Indeed, the NASW is comprised of a heterogeneous group of PIOs, staff science journalists, freelancers and other science writers, many of whom don’t even know precisely how to identify themselves — or so the recent survey suggests. Of the 416 survey respondents that labeled themselves journalists, 61 also self-identified at PIOs. A total of 138 respondents identified as multiple combinations of “journalist,” “PIO,” and “other.”

The recent report comes amidst a larger debate that’s been roiling the scientific journalism community in recent years. At the heart of that debate is the charge that rigorous coverage of the sciences has devolved into a flabby affair in which reporters more readily minister to the interests of scientists and the institutions they represent than to the needs and interests of ordinary readers.

A recent essay in the magazine Pacific Standard, for example, called out science journalists for “working in partnership with their sources,” while others have lamented the sweeping aside of scientific conflicts of interest, misconduct among researchers, and the proliferation of dubious scientific results in favor of playing cheerleader to modest scientific discoveries and traffic-generating ephemera.

Some of that discord is now playing out in the jockeying for power within NASW — a tug-of-war that journalism purists within the organization appear to be losing. That would seem to suit PIO members just fine.

“Given that most of the membership favors this change and a tiny fraction says they’ll quit,” Bates said, “I say we call their bluff.”

This post has been updated to indicate that Dan Fagin is a member of Undark’s advisory board, and to clarify that the Society of Environmental Journalists does not allow non-journalists to serve in officer positions.

See What Others Are Saying

77 comments / Join the Discussion

    I first joined NASW as a science journalist in the late 1990s. I worked for a national news service which served a chain of newspapers with 2+ million readers and had stories picked up by other major publications, the Wall Street Journal among them. However, I never once felt that as a journalist member I had any more support or prestige than as a PIO now. There is a toxic caste system at NASW and it applies to journalists as well as PIOs. There’s the “top-tier” and “everyone else.” So, I don’t feel any material difference in being part of NASW now than I did as a journalist. Reform of some sort is long in the coming.

    This has been an excellent and illuminating discussion, but I think it wandered quite far from the proposition at hand. The amendment does not redefine journalism, it does not claim that journalism and institutional writing are the same things, it does not require the election of a PIO to the ranks of officers but merely permits it. It does nothing to impinge or redact the power NASW members have to withdraw membership from members whose actions or motives they find objectionable, even if that member is an officer. In fact, I have great faith in the membership, which saw the hypocrisy in 1998 of relegating non-journalists to second-class associate membership, and which (according to the Ad Hoc Committee’s report) supports by a margin of nearly 2:1 opening the four officer slots up candidacy by any NASW member in good standing. The amendment is an issue of equality, of full representation in the governance of NASW by all dues-paying members, and of recognition that journalists who derive no income from any writing they do beyond traditional journalistic platforms constitute an increasingly small minority of the membership. It recognizes a commitment to science writing that transcends payroll issues. The amendment to me *is* the compromise position many who commented on this post seem to be looking for: It creates a space for all of us who committed to work together in an inclusive organization that can represents the interests of journalists, PIOs, freelancers, museum writers, and other science writers.

    I too am struck by the notion that an organization where a non-journalist can become a Board member would suddenly be completely undone by having a non-journalist as an officer. I am saddened that there are veteran journalist members who believe this would be the case, but I respect their position and am pleased that there are other organizations devoted to supporting journalism (per se) not just science journalism, just as there are other organizations devoted to supported public relations (per se), not just science public relations. I get a lot out of my PRSA membership, but it is no substitute for NASW, as I’m sure many members of SPJ feel that it is no substitute for NASW.

    Instead of discussing whether people are real science journalists or not, in my country we discuss integrity, quality and good practice. We have had this discussion on real journalists vs PIO’s in Europe for years, and I do not find it productive. We are facing the worst media crisis since Gutenberg. In many countries the newspaper readership is decimated at its least. The traditional media is struggling, and the first they fire are the specialist journalists. In my own country, Denmark, research institutions and universities have increased their number of communicators tenfold at the same time. I can sell an article to a newspaper for a fraction of what I could 20 years ago. Most of what I read in the news is written by PIO’s who offer their articles for free. Therefore there is barely a market for “free journalists”.
    The solution to this is not to split up and fight each other. Basically we should concentrate on ethics of journalism, the integrity of the author, the quality of the story and the good practice behind informing about conflicts of interests, etc. The fight is dum for two reasons: the “pure” journalist is an endangered species, and has always been extremely rare. Who can claim that they are completely independent? Most media are owned by someone, and the journalists can not claim independence. There are editors who edit the message and spice it up or reject it as they like, and the journalist is not independent. Even if you are working for public radio and television there is political pressure you cannot neglect. The second reason is that if we want to fight vested interests and manipulation the way forward is mutual understanding and collaboration between journalists and PIO’s. We need more transparency in the media on the science stories and the possible conflicts of interest. On the longer term, I am sure that the more serious public institutions and private companies will support some minimum ethics rules on how knowledge is being treated in the media. They understand that credibility is much more important than short term PR claims.

    A considerable portion of this discussion has addressed questions of ethics and conflicts of interest and the inference, at the least, that true journalists are perched at a loftier point of that sloped continuum than are non-journalists. Opinions will naturally vary, based on one’s personal situation, but it seems that some posters’ ideas of those issues overlook practices that arguably could be seen as questionable. While some members of NASW and SEJ may see institutional science writers as rife with conflicts, they have no problem allowing those institutions to pay large sums to host their annual meetings. And in some cases, corporations or other entities are allowed to sponsor receptions, breakfasts or other activities, for which they receive some recognition. And in cases where exhibits are allowed, exhibitors will pay for the right to display before attendees. Members and payees all agree that this is acceptable behavior since it allows for lower costs paid be the members and payees supposedly gain access, albeit brief, with writers who might someday mention them in coverage. It’s difficult to see this as anything other than quid pro quo which in most cases would be viewed as a conflict of interest. I would hope, if as predicted here and elsewhere, that if journalists split off to form their National Association of Science Journalists, which one assumes would have fierce ethics and conflict of interest standards, that they would forego those paying institutional venues and gratis receptions, etc. which are obviously corrupting influences.

    I’m a freelance journalist—that is, someone whose spouse pays the bills—who had the chance to go to the last NASW conference because it was in my neighborhood. I’m not interested in going to another. A big part of that reaction is my disgust with the caste-system-like attitude of self-righteous journalists who act like university writers should count their lucky stars for being allowed in the same room with them. The disrespect and condescension was palpable. I’m sure I was far from alone in feeling that way, but the attitude was at least pervasive enough to leave its mark.

    To me, I can’t believe this amendment is even a question (since issues of jeopardizing funding/status, etc. seem to have been resolved). Either people who work PIO jobs are paying members of NASW or they aren’t. The real challenge is apparently creating a respectful and collaborative organization.

    Dan, Earle, and others,

    There will always be gray areas within journalism. But the distinction between someone whose job is to publicize an institution’s research endeavors, and a science journalist, whose job is to report critically and analytically, is clearcut. Yes, the quality of the output is important, but so is the context within which the work is done.

    To me this is all part of a much bigger picture in which everything from laboratory blogs, university press releases, and institutionally published magazines have been subsumed into something called “science communication,” with the assumption that science journalism is just one more part of the promotional effort.

    I agree with Paul Raeburn’s column today. The time has come to regroup into two separate organizations.

    I’ve been going over and over this and reading all the comments, and I’m still stuck on two main reactions: Huh? And, where are the constructive approaches so we can back away from this “rift” business and at least try to build a bridge?

    First, Huh?
    I’m still trying to listen and understand where the opposition to the amendment comes from.

    I genuinely do not understand what justifiable cause exists for a large subgroup of a membership organization to be unilaterally disqualified from leading that organization. If there is evidence to suggest that every person whose primary job is not journalism, is unquestionably biased against the interests of journalists and/or against journalism as a profession, then present it.

    I accept that PIOs generally have biases in favor of their own institution, but I don’t see how that has anything to do with a PIO’s capacity to lead NASW fairly. If you’re concerned about the individual biases or COIs of individual non-journalists, don’t nominate or vote for those individuals as NASW officers. Can someone connect the dots if this (inevitable/insurmountable bias against the interests of journalism) is a position held by those who oppose the amendment? Or is there a different argument I missed, that hasn’t yet been debunked?

    (Personal aside: I believe, based on my own past experience as a PIO and people I know, that many PIOs support good journalism a hell of a lot more than the average person does. Certainly, PIOs who are members of NASW should. We actually recognize and value it because we have to put up with a much higher volume of terrible churnalism that misrepresents our scientists’ work. We see how deeply quality journalism is under assault. Many PIOs used to be journalists and wish they still could be, were it not for the economics. Many PIOs strive to incorporate as many of the practices of quality journalism into their work as possible. I’m not claiming that PIOs know journalism better than journalists, or could represent the interests of journalism without doing so in partnership with journalists. But they do have a perspective on it, and it isn’t “anti-“.)

    (Another aside: We’ve been talking a lot about PIOs, but plenty of NASW members are neither primarily journalists nor primarily PIOs. I consider myself now an institutional science writer who is neither. Also “neither”: Professors of science journalism and communication, writers of science textbooks, and lots of others, all disqualified from eligibility to be officers under the current rules.)

    Second thing: Where are the constructive conversations?

    The Ad Hoc committee advised trying to build consensus and figure out an alternative proposal or supplementary that won’t make divisions within the organization worse and that could preserve the benefits of having a combined organization. I see a lot of people saying they hope journalists won’t leave NASW, and I see a lot of bickering and describing this situation as a crisis, an implosion, or cause to split off a separate NASJ, among journalists who feel they must leave NASW if the amendment passes. That sounds like the nuclear option. Where is the negotiation?

    Suppose we pass the amendment, but also:

    Introduce and pass a new amendment specifying that at any given time, at least one of the President and Vice President must be principally a journalist. If there’s reasonable belief that many or most non-journalists will have conflicts arise that interfere with the duties of President, this would be a plausible solution. A hypothetical non-journalist president could delegate such tasks to the journalist vice president. Journalists are always represented at the highest level of the organization, in recognition of NASW’s basis as an organization built on supporting the principles and practices of journalism.

    Require regular, professional ethics training for all NASW board members and members of essential committees (such as the nominating committee). This could help with recognizing COI when it occurs, and defining specific procedures for recusing officers and other members of the board or committees, from decisions and actions where conflict could pose an issue. It could help the nominating committee filter out potential nominees for officer positions, who may have compromising COI. It could help with a LOT of things, really.

    Introduce a Journalism committee within NASW. My understanding is that the PIO and Freelance committees exist to support the needs of these specialized subgroups within NASW. If the concern is that journalists’ needs would be underrepresented in NASW leadership if non-journalists could become officers, then maybe that concern and the shifting demographics of NASW mean that the time has come to ensure representation in this way.

    Maybe these aren’t the right constructive suggestions, but I hope I’m not alone in wanting to actually understand what the concerns are in opposition to the amendment, and wanting to address them in a constructive way. Can we try more of this kind of conversation, and less of the rhetoric about rifts and tearing apart?

    I’ve never understood why science journalists and PIOs shared the same association — I didn’t join NASW a long time for that reason, and I certainly would leave if the constitution changed. However, there also seems to be a sensible solution: Divide NASW into two organizations, but set it up so that the two associations continue to cohost, with joint governance, the NASW meeting.

    The biggest problem I see with that idea is the theoretical NASJ would lose out on the, ah, redistribution it’s done, shifting PIO dues toward travel grants, etc, to journalists, along with its full-time positions. However, I’d suspect — though I have *no* evidence to support this — that NASJ could make up that deficit by luring philanthropists who might have looked askance at donating to NASW as it currently exists. Just an idea.

    So, I have been watching this conversation intently, both as a long-time member of NASW, as a former board member, as a PIO, and as the author of “that amendment thing.” And as a long-time participant in other culture wars that have arisen in the American landscape, for make no mistake, this conversation represents at base a clash of cultures, no more and no less.

    What the ad hoc committee’s report has done has confirmed what many of us have known all along — that the Association has benefited throughout its existence from regular and sustained dialogue between science communicators across a spectrum of journalistic practice. And that the membership *generally* feels this blended membership is a good thing. I certainly do. It also dispels the notion that NASW membership broadly thinks the association is in reality the National Association of Science Journalists. Thus the issue before us is hardly existential; it is an issue of the Association’s practice catching up to its varied membership, just as American policy has caught up (finally) to American attitudes about same-sex marriage, for example. How quickly the prognostications of riots in the streets and the creation of a modern Sodomic nation-state that criminalizes opposite-sex marriage have come to naught; what we are seeing in the handful of vocal extremist exclusionists does not negate that this was the right move for the country to make at the right time, even if a minority of Americans were uncomfortable with this new world order. How feeble and hollow those last gasps of inequality sound now, when the nation has essentially moved on. How plaintive and anachronistic the notion that same-sex marriage would “ruin it” for opposite-sex couples.

    To my ear it sounds just as plaintive and anachronistic that having PIOs as officers of NASW would somehow “ruin it” for journalists.

    I am hard-pressed to find a single non-staff-journalist who does not support a free and independent science press corps, however hard that is to find these days. This amendment has little or nothing to do with whether journalists are fundamentally different from PIOs — of course they are, even when their work products and work styles are virtually indistinguishable. There will always attach to PIOs (and to freelance to undertake writing for employers other than legacy news organizations) a question about whose interests they really represent. Although I would offer that same question now also attaches to traditional journalists, as any current public attitude survey will attest and as a number of hard-hitting pieces of enterprise journalism suggest is appropriate.

    The real question is whether an organization, which purports to find common ground in science writing, can legitimately claim that only the minority of its members who do one prescribed kind of science writing can actually avail themselves of the full benefits of membership. The persistence of journalist-only officers rules makes a mockery of all the kind words we hear from a litany of previous journalist-officers about how valued PIOs are (just not as valued as journalists are), how critical their role in society is (though clearly not as critical as the role of staff journalists), how important they have been to the NASW and its mission (though clearly not as foundational as journalists have been), etc. At some point this has to come across to even the most naive observer of this discussion as a variant of “some of my best friends are PIOs but I don’t think my business should have to serve their kind because it is against my professional principles.”

    I also would question the comments of some veteran science journalists who aver that their employers would bar them from participation in NASW if a PIO were elected to officership, when the Board already contains PIO members (and there is no barrier to the ENTIRE board being PIOs, not that this has ever happened or is ever likely to happen). Because this argument intrigues and puzzles me, I am personally undertaking discussions with the public editors and ethics advisors to a number of our flagship newspapers, asking them whether they already are aware that their staff belong to an organization whose membership already comprises a non-journalist majority, and whose operating Board is also open to service (if not control) by PIOs, and whether it’s only officership that is the final step over the line. I’m sure this will be an enlightening discussion with them. I would welcome NASW to solicit this information formally as part of its listening tour.

    It has been observed in this discussion that opening the officer roles to non-journalists wouldn’t necessarily change things up much in the way NASW operates at a broader scale, or even diminish its international leadership on issues of science writing, science journalism included. Yet what is clear is that this is the right thing to do, now or at some point in the future. We PIOs have been promised that “some point in the future” would be “soon” for the last decade; forgive us for noting that the culture of science writing has moved on from very constraining cultural roles that defined generations of science writers to a recognition that we’re dealing with a much different writing landscape requiring a recognition that science writers need to be free — personally and professionally — from these rigid job stereotypes. The “some point in the future” is now — has been for a couple years. And NASW as a matter of principle should embrace a chance to level the playing field for equal participation by all its members, even at the expense of offending members who would prefer that PIOs make do with the membership equivalent of civil unions instead of full equality.

    Rick, your analogy — your casting of this as a civil-rights issue, in which the bigoted want to deny rights of the powerless — is both inaccurate and willfully inflammatory.

    This is not a civil-rights issue. It’s a jobs issue, and a very limited one. It’s about the right to hold a certain small number (four) of jobs at the top of a flagship organization. This isn’t gay marriage. This is not bigotry based on something someone can’t change — skin color — or on fears about what someone does in their sexual and private life, as you’ve suggested with your gay marriage analogy. This is about something much narrower.It’s about whether it makes senses for a someone who does substantial work in PIO/PR — someone defined by a certain kind of work they’ve chosen, not a skin color or sexual orientation — can serve to as the chief spokesperson (the president) of a professional organization that represents, along with PIOs, journalists.

    If we need an analogy, a better one would be about whether someone doing PIO work should be eligible to be executive editor of the New York Times. Note I did not say “gets to write for the New York Times.” If you, Rick, even as a Dept of Energy spokesperson, wrote a journalistic story about something far from the energy world — say, the social lives of dust mites — the Times would likely let you publish that story there, and rightly so. Your energy work would not preclude your story about dust mite sex from being published. You would be free to build a career around such work, just as many excellent freelancers who do a mix of PI work and journalism now do.

    But the Times would not let you write about energy. And — to address the point at hand — the Times would not make you the executive editor while you are simultaneously or have recently done PIO work for the energy department. Nor should they. Given all we know about conflicts of interest, no news organization could rightly claim to be practicing journalism if their executive editor is an employee of the Department of Energy.

    Yet you’re asking the same thing of the NASW. You want to convince people there is no good reason to bar PIOs from the top job, when the top job is to represent an organization packed with journalists. For me to point out that PIOs’ interests are conflicts of interest when it comes to journalism is not to discriminate based on arbitrary biology (skin color) or one’s private life. It’s to note a difference of agenda.

    Now, whether the NASW can survive those differences is a legitimate question. But it’s not a question of bigotry, and I find it unconstructive to accuse those who point out this perfectly salient difference in agendas of being akin to racists and homophobes. This is a bogus analogy, an unfair accusation, and a distraction. Instead of calling me a bigot, you need to explain to me how someone with clear conflicts of interest on issues of critical journalistic and public importance — say, energy, which is so closely tied to climate change and so much else — can serve effectively as a spokesperson and lead officer of an organization that purports to represent not just science communicators but science journalists.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think you can, which is why I’ll be leaving the NASW if this measure passes. Am I bluffing? I am not bluffing. I know many others who would leave. I have good reason to believe this list would include many of the people who have played and now play key roles in running the organization and putting on some of the most popular sessions at the conferences. I’m saying this not to levy a threat, but to make clear that such an exodus is a strong possibility that sober discussion of this should consider. To call it a ‘bluff’, and urge people to call it, is not sober discussion; it’s irresponsible poker talk. You need to explain what will happen, and how the NASW will remain viable, and how it will change, if large numbers of journalists actually do walk. You need to show that you’ve thought this through.

    David Dobbs
    Freelance science journalist

    Rick, I think your analogy to gay rights etc is over the top, but in other respects I largely agree with you.

    David, your alternative analogy — should a PIO be executive editor of the NYT — is equally silly. In what sense is NASW analogous to the NYT? NASW membership, as the report shows, is wide-ranging. The organization may have been conceived, a long time ago, as one devoted to science journalism in its purest form (though even that is doubtful), but it isn’t such an organization now and hasn’t been for a long time. The survey results cited in the report show that a lot of members who call themselves journalists are not what I would call journalists in the strict sense. They work for non-profits or museums or trade associations, even (in some case) for commercial entities. There is a significant proportion of ‘others’ — people, like me, who consider themselves neither journalists nor PIOs.

    It seems to me that many critics of the new amendment have a misconceived idea of what NASW actually is these days — empirically, I mean, in terms of its membership, not idealistically, in terms of what they would like it to be. All the arguments about the relative moral standing of journalists and PIOs are trite and tiresome, and beside the point. None of us need to be lectured to on that subject.

    To me, the question is simpler. Should NASW officers be drawn from a segment of the membership that now constitutes, I believe, a decided minority? To those who say that only true journalists should be officers, I say rewrite the NASW constitution and rename the organization. Call it the National Assn of Science Journalists, and allow as members only those who genuinely qualify. I would not, I don’t think, and anyway an organization devoted narrowly to science journalism is not one that would have great value to me.

    But if we call ourselves the National Assn of Science Writers, and cast the net widely to bolster the membership, it makes no sense to pretend it is an organization devoted to journalistic purity and limit the officership accordingly.

    You can’t have it both ways, is what I’m saying.

    Call the bluff if, in fact, it is a bluff, but think compromise first. Come up with alternative solutions by a small committee of well-respected members who represent “both” sides. Then have the group present its best recommendation to vote up or down. Journalists and PIOs are all equal when it comes to board management skills and experience. Work this out folks. It’s not rocket thermodynamics you’re debating. It’s freedom of association and equal rights.

    I misquoted the journalism definition by Eick van Dijk: Journalism is “Truth-seeking story telling, primarily serving citizens, without a legal foundation.“

    I had the honor and adventure at working at what may have been the last–or only–totally independent information office at a university, Stanford. It is true that most of the releases we sent out were no different than those other organizations send out in procedure but I had the right to say no, that’s not a story or no, you didn’t find anything first, although I rarely had to do that. More importantly, I had the right to do actual journalism, free of oversight and with full freedom. We were protected by a university Vice President who thought having an independent news operation was n the best interests of the university long term even if it wasn’t in the best interest of the current administration. It was a condition of my job I could do this with the enthusiastic support of Bob Beyers, the head of the news office. Beyers protextedm me and the vice president protect him. I did.a story on a Vice President who ran an IT operation and wasted $8 million building a empire. He was fired. I did a story on how Stanford was cheating on indirect costs that got Don Kennedy fired a president and cost the university a large fine and Congressional hearing. Beyers was fired. When I was sending out press release I was doing pr. When I did investigative work I was doing journalism. They are not the same thing and the position I had at Stanford no longer exists anywhere. These are two distinct professions sharing common interests. To blur the distinction is in the best interest of neither and will destroy NASW as a science journalism organization.

    Joel Shurkin — Loved your book on Shockley and especially the descriptions of the Stanford News Office. So good.

    I’m an NASW member and identify as a journalist. Here’s an important question that I do not think has been asked enough in this whole debate, either here at Undark or in the preceding decade or so: What are we fighting for here? Put another way: What does NASW do for its members that is so essential as to warrant all of this ink? My bias reveals itself by asking, but it’s a serious (and journalistic) inquiry.

    Hi Closed Loop,

    My own conversations with people about this suggests that, at least for journalists, the value is higher early in one’s career, when a trip to the conference can get you not just story ideas, but lastingly valuable relationships with editors and fellow writers, including many further along in their fields. I remember being astonished — still am — at how generous science writers are, and how readily they help people new in the field; this goes for those most senior and well-established; everyone’s approachable, editors including. I’ve seen Times editors, for instance (David Corcoran), hear pitches from people just starting off and then inviting them to send something fuller in; I know one freelancer who was just starting off who sold Corcoran a piece like that. So it’s a great place to get key contacts, and an unrivaled place for someone new to science writing to make friends and get a sense of the lay of the land. Plus, feel a sense of shared mission.

    Likewise, journalists working up stories or ideas can readily find PIOs at relevant institutions and pick their brains for stories, contacts, context, etc.

    Can’t speak from the PIO angle, but my understanding is PIOs enjoy the access to journalists with whom they can compare notes or to whom they can pitch stories.

    Further down one’s career as a journalist, those contacts are still helpful; it’s always helpful to meet new editors and get to better know those you already know; you can pitch five stories to ten editors faster than any other way, getting critical feedback as you go; and you get to actually SEE Adam Rogers’ smile — a truly friendly smile — as he intelligently says, Not sure that’ll work.

    Plus it’s fun to see old friends. Let’s hope the whole thing holds up.

    I’m not sure the European situation can shed much light on the NASW controversy, as our histories are very different, but it can at least underline that some “constitutional” choices can have serious consequences (as Dan Fagin rightly points out in my view). In Europe, over the recent years, several national associations (including my own, AJSPI, from France) have broken off from the European Union of Science Journalist’s Association (EUSJA) mainly because they felt EUSJA did not draw a firm enough line between science journalism and science communication, both in its membership and in its boards. (And by the way, does it make sense to draw a firm line for the boards, but not for the members ?).

    The resulting divide clearly weakens our profession as a whole. But it will not be easely solved : all the members of EUSJA’s newly elected board are now PIOs… (Could this be where NASW is going too ?)

    So indeed this is an international debate, and I agree with Deborah it would be worth discussing at WCSJ 2017…

    Dear Yves,

    If you think all the current members of the EUSJA board are PIO’s you are wrong. As President of this organisation I can say very clearly that I am an independent freelance science journalist with no link to any company or public organisation. All the other board members have a long career as science journalist behind them, but two of them are now working as PIO’s for research institutions. I do not think we have any conflict of interests. The focus should rather be on integrity, quality and good practice. I hope your organisation will join EUSJA soon. Many of your members are benefiting from our international study trips and our conferences. In the near future we will set up networks of investigative science journalists who can work and publish across borders.

    Look at history. Here’s the kind of problems NASW has had in the past with PR people. There have been more cases.

    The Medical/P.R. Writer: A Troubling Chimera in Science Newsrooms?
    David Zimmerman
    Spring 1989

    Leonard Zahn, a PR man worked for the Council for Tobacco Research, a tobacco industry association, and was also a member of NASW who was editor of the NASW newsletter at one time. Zahn used him NASW membership to get press access, including attending press conferences, at national medical meetings, and (according to his memos to his employers) worked behind the scenes to get stories killed.

    The german association of science journalists has a maybe illuminating statue related to this fascinating discussion: http://www.wpk.org/wpk/who-we-are.html. It reads as follows: „Members can only be full time journalists and publicists (e.g. writers) who regularly report about science, medicine, technology or science policy. PIOs of institutions, governmental bodies or companies are excluded from becoming full members, even when they are full time journalists.“

    Our organization has three organizational pillars. Paying Members, ergo full time working science journalists, who are the only once to vote the board members, friends, who can attend meetings but have no voting rights in the general assembly and a seperate society with a board from research institutions that share the aim of the science journalists association statue by funding not more than half of the science journalists associations annual budget.

    My favorite normative definition about what separates journalism from PR is this: „Journalism is truth telling story telling, serving the public interest, without a legal foundation.“ This means simply that journalistic practices that serve the public interest and aim to tell what is considered true at the time of reporting are indeed acts of journalism. So I agree with Dan Fagin that a man called a journalist can write a public relations piece and a PIO can in principle write a piece of great science journalism, even when this goes against the interest of the institution he represents. In reality though, acts of journalism need to be protected by organizations that foster good journalism. that is because, as we all know, In the digital age, some media organizations can no longer be considered fostering acts of journalism.

    Maybe I shouldn’t be commenting because I don’t belong to NASW nor AHJC, never really felt the need to investigate membership, probably fall somewhere between memberships. I started out as a newspaper reporter in the early 1980s and have worked the past 10 years for a small medical publishing co. in DC writing healthcare policy and compliance stories about HIPAA and research at academic institutions. Much of what I have written is investigative and I am often the only one nationally reporting what I find: Alice Dreger featured me in her book, “Galileo’s Middle Finger,” for uncovering the SUPPORT scandal and the total lack of enforcement (continuing today) by the HHS Office for Human Subjects Research. No one at my company tells me what to write and I am beholden to no one. I worked for WebMD in the first two years of its founding, writing for the MD site (now gone) and consumer (a mere shadow of itself w/no real reporting).

    In the past I’ve done corporate healthcare PR/PIO type stuff (for a division of Aetna, a large public teaching hospital, a PR company and individual clients). I’ve been on both sides. So please don’t pretend no one knows what a journalist is and that there’s no difference between me (a full-time reporter) and a PIO. Sad commentary on the state of my profession. A PIO has a foundational CIO that cannot be ignored and is barely mitigated. Many that I have worked with have been little more than obstructionist and controlling. They don’t “break” stories.

    Now matter how excellent their work or how personally committed they are to objective truth, anyone who writes about research for the institution that pays his or her salary is not doing journalism. That does not diminish the value of their work in any way, but it is an important distinction that has long been recognized throughout the profession. Conflicts and appearances of conflict are to be avoided.

    Comparisons to other kinds of journalism provide a good reality check. Would anyone think it is ok for a political reporter to also work as a campaign consultant or government press officer? Would it be ok for the reporter and a campaign press secretary to be officers in an organization that promoted “political communication?” The same hypotheticals can be constructed for business or sports reporting. Would someone who objected to these situations be considered a purist with an overly rigid view of journalism, one that needs to bend with the times?

    Those may seem like artificial examples since so many more science reporters are freelancers. But the principle still holds. The line between science communication and science journalism has already been allowed to become too blurry. They are different professions. They have overlapping goals and should share a mutual respect, but there is also an inherent conflict.

    I totally agree. As a Swiss science journalist I always asked myself what a science writer is compared to a science journalist. In German “science writer” doesn’t exist. I’ve always had the impression that the notion of “science writer” blurs the line between journalism and communication. But maybe I’m wrong.

    George, are you arguing that a PIO who somehow manages to do her job free of influence from her employer is less of a journalist than a conventional reporter who is manifestly biased? I keep going back to the idea that what defines journalism is the practice itself, not who’s cutting the check. I think the folks at Kaiser Health News (Kaiser Foundation/health), the Washington Post (Amazon/Bezos), Inside Climate News (various liberal foundations), ProPublica (Sandler Family/finance) would agree. All of those places have established firewalls that are supposed to ensure that their reporters can fully function as journalists, and all of those places cover topics in which their funders have a strong rooting interest or financial interest. (The same could be said of every metropolitan newspaper, especially those that are locally owned.) Despite the potential for conflict of interest, all of those places I listed (including the metro papers) still produce credible journalism — and sometimes great journalism. Isn’t it at least theoretically possible that a PIO could function with the same protective firewall? I would not want to foreclose that possibility; instead, I’d like to encourage it, which is why I think the current structure works for NASW. But even though I think that the practice is what defines journalism, not the person and the source of payment, I don’t think it’s practical or advisable for a group like NASW to evaluate the journalism of each potential officer and give a thumbs up or down on its worthiness. Instead, I would simply keep the current prohibition on non-journalists as officers and avoid the likelihood of many full-time journalists leaving the group. Welcome your thoughts on this.


    A firewall between publishers and journalists (an increasingly rare thing, sadly) is designed to free reporters to serve their readers, listeners, or viewers with news and opinion.

    A firewall between universities and PIOs that freed PIOs from promoting their universities would free them to do what, exactly? Their job is to promote their universities.

    Agreed, Paul, in most cases. But some PIOs appear to define their jobs differently, and a few claim to function under structures that allow them to prioritize their readers over the needs of their institutions. Earle Holland is one of them, so it would be good to hear from Earle and others on the question of whose needs come first, and also on protective firewalls. The second point is that as you note, Paul, too many conventional journalists are functioning without protection and moving away from what you and I would consider ethical journalism. Are they journalists? My answer, always, is that we have to judge them by their work, not who pays them.

    Sorry, I should amend part of the comment I just made. I don’t think that the definition of journalism is “prioritizing the needs of readers” (or viewers or listeners) over everything else. Instead, I think the definition is “prioritizing the closest possible depiction of reality within the space and time available” over everything else. One of the excuses reporters who produce bad journalism make is that their readers don’t really want their best attempt at describing reality, and that readers instead just want their predispositions reinforced, or red meat, or salacious stimulation etc. etc. So let’s not reward those bad practices by calling it journalism, even if it IS what some audiences want sometimes.

    Dan, you asked to hear from me re: “the question of whose needs come first, and also on protective firewalls.” To the former point, I’ve always argued that the reader’s needs (not necessarily “wants”) come first, even for institutional PIOs. The return for the organization is credibility and is worth much, much more than visibility. To the latter point, firewalls are nebulous things at institutions and rarely are they established, rather, they evolve. Bob Beyers had one at Stanford for years ’til a new administration ran him out. (Ask Joel Shurkin). In effect, I had one at Ohio State for almost 35 years ’til they showed me the door. It requires a few things: a PIO who’s widely trusted by both researchers and the media and who has a strong sense of news judgement; an obstinate streak or near-stupid bullheadedness against managerial oversight; senior leadership who choose success over their ability to personally control everything; and a willingness to risk one’s job every day to maintain their integrity. I know a bunch of PIOs who have those qualities to varying degrees and enjoy autonomy in what they do. But their numbers are dwindling and newcomers often don’t realize that they too can attain that kind of environment. It seems to me we ought to be encouraging this kind of mindset and allegiance to journalistic standards among these folks rather than concentrating on telling them they’re not as committed to the public good as are “true” journalists. No offense intended to anyone — it’s just my view.


    What I meant was that writing about research conducted by one’s own employer is inherently a conflict of interest, and that keeps it from being journalism. That doesn’t mean that PIOs are not, as Earle put it, “as committed to the public good as are ‘true’ journalists.” The two just serve that good in different ways. Joel Shurkin puts it well in his post: PIOs and journalists “are two distinct professions sharing common interests. To blur the distinction is in the best interest of neither and will destroy NASW as a science journalism organization.”

    That would leave it free to recast itself, in purpose if not in name, as the National Association of Science Communicators. If that happens science journalists could conceivably form a separate group (maybe somehow in conjunction with the Society of Professional Journalists). It was interesting to learn from Yves Sciama’s post that this sort of split has been happening in Europe.

    George, my understanding, Or it has been, of conflict of interest has been that the concern is over both real and perceived conflict of interest, with the remedy generally being disclosure in both cases. That’s the way it works in science. Disclosure allows readers to consider the findings knowing there might or might not be some questionable connection. Let’s say you’re the medical reporter and your physician (also a researcher) has published interesting findings. But you see an obvious conflict, won’t do the story, and it gets handed off to a general assignment reporter who’s a neophyte at medical reporting. What is the greater good? Personally, I’d want you to write the piece with a note explaining the connection. But that’s just me. As a reader, personally, I’d want the writer to be the most knowledgeable, especially given the fact that specialist reporters seem to be dwindling.

    Thanks for responding, George. If I’m understanding your point correctly, by your reasoning a newspaper reporter who writes about her own newspaper’s business affairs or editorial policies is “inherently” conflicted and therefore not doing journalism, no matter what kind of firewall is in place. Do you agree? I do not. I do agree with you that if this constitutional change is adopted, the likely result is that many journalists will leave NASW and perhaps form an “NASJ”. That split may be inevitable in the long run, but I think both groups will lose something valuable if it happens.

    George, I’ve certainly heard that argument before and it is basically logical until you consider those writing for the News and Comment section of Science who are paid by a large science organization. Obviously they do outstanding science journalism but unfortunately violate the premise you offer. That’s the problem with blanket explanations and definitions. Usually there are exceptions.

    Earle: are those writing in the news section of Science only writing about what has been published in Science? It was not my impression, but one can be sure that when they are writing about what has been published in their own publication, there is an appeareance of conflict. But in any case, no matter what the definition is, I continue to argue that we should all ask ourselves if independent journalist is something we must all fight for… or if we are on the verge of saying that it doesn’t matter because we are all science writers, all the same.

    Pascal, George said, “anyone who writes about research for the institution that pays his or her salary is not doing journalism.” Folks in the News and Comment section of Science are certainly “writing about research” and doing it “for the institution” paying their salary, including occasionally, things published in that journal. My point was simply that there are always exceptions to blanket statements like this one. Dan provided others. But to your last point, I’m certainly not saying we’re all the same– our diversity is a strength. I’m saying that all members of an organization should have equal opportunities to serve, and the present NASW rules disallow this when it comes to officers, going so far as to put forth only a single “approved” candidate for each office. That’s hardly a democratic system and gives a differential advantage to the designated candidate over any “walk-one” who might try to run.


    I agree that the gray areas are difficult and interesting — especially the case you cite of Science magazine. Since AAAS itself is not conducting the research, the situation seems different to me from university PIOs writing news releases. And I take Dan’s point that foundation-funded public interest journalism raises more tricky issues. But these exceptions still leave, for the most part, a clear distinction between journalism and promotion.

    There seems to be a certain amount of agonizing about the fundamental distinction between a science writer and a PIO. The difference between these two (perfectly legitimate) trades may be illuminated by considering another professional distinction, namely between museum exhibitions (science writers) and trade shows (PIOs). Museum exhibitions are, heaven knows, a mixed bag; but done right (and not under undue influence from sponsors – another interesting issue!) they represent the independent perspectives of particular curators or exhibitors; whereas trade shows – again, a mixed bag – represent the points of view of PIOs’ employers.

    The issue, then, is one of authorial interests. Of course, science writers have many potential or actual interests (including winning lots of readers, as well as Pulitzer Prizes), and these may sometimes lead them astray. PIOs, on the other hand, may be presumed to have one primary interest – namely, that of their employer. Of course, employer interests may sometimes be served by open and h0nest reporting of issues; but equally, they may sometimes be served by something less than or at least different from that. The importance of this distinction may be judged, perhaps, from the fact that everyone I’ve ever worked with in the world of museums of science & technology has been acutely aware of the distinction between exhibitions and trade shows – and determined to keep their work firmly in the first of these two categories!

    That’s an insightful comparison, John, and one I hadn’t considered – but makes perfect sense coming from a museum director! And it does get at one major point in the issue here, which is that although science journalists and science PIOS/communicators stand on some common ground – a fascination with science, its products, its impacts, a recognition that it’s important to share that – we don’t always share common goals in what stories should be told or how they should be told. It’s important – even essential as David Dobbs points out in another comment here – for journalists to be independent-minded investigators. We may want to illuminate science for the public but our job – our purpose – is not to sell it to the public and if we do our job well, we illuminate it with all its human complications. That’s a very different task or goal than the one of most public information officers. In other words, your comparison definitely works for me. But I have a question in turn. Do those who put together museum exhibitions and those who do the same for trade shows share a common organization and argue over equal status? That is one of the issues driving the current discussion for science writers and I’m curious as to whether you all have also confronted it and if so, how you handled it.

    Deborah, the answer to your question is: yes & no (sorry!). Yes, I think trade show exhibitors often attend professional museum & science center meetings, and participate in many professional discussions; but no, I don’t believe that commercial organizations that produce trade shows are eligible for full membership of e.g., the the American Alliance of Museums or the Association of Science & Technology Centers (ASTC); and I’ve never heard of a trade show exhibitor being appointed an officer of one of these professional museum/science center organizations. The situation is complicated by the fact that there are many commercial exhibition developers, who create exhibits for museums & science centers. I guess these organizations are more like science writers than PIOs; actually, their role is a bit like that of free-lance writers who sell copy to publications. Anyway, I hope this helps….

    As the publishing world radically changes, with so many new ways for the news of science to reach the public, it seems to me that the implicit journalistic values at the heart of NASW and its constitution are more important than ever. They offer an essential compass for navigating the shifting shoals of the standards and practices among our various employers. As we move from assignment to assignment or payroll to payroll, none of us can guarantee the values of our next employer or of the competing interests in our work portfolio. What we can do is to foster our independent sense of professionalism and take courage from it.

    As a group, NASW embodies a rare balancing act between covering science as a matter of independent journalism and promoting the benefits of scientific research. It can easily tip too far one way or another. And the potential for conflicts of interest that can upset that balance is the real issue I see before us. For me, the leadership of NASW matters in ways both symbolic and practical. Our officers have symbolic value because the leaders of NASW are visible figureheads fostering standards for the science writing community worldwide. As a practical matter, I would not be comfortable belonging to NASW if it is, for instance, headed by an employee of the federal government, which often blocks the free and accurate dissemination of science information to the general public. I would not be comfortable having a corporate public relations manager or science-marketing director in charge of NASW.

    I am not sure of the best way to reword the NASW constitution to avoid those sorts of conflicts, but I do believe that an earlier generation of NASW leaders framed the current qualifications for office in an effort to sidestep such pitfalls in order to preserve a balance of competing interests that is at the core of the group.

    I am uncomfortable with the notion that NASW should (or does) strike a balance between journalism and “promoting the benefits of scientific research.” Promotion strikes me as a different sort of activity than either dissemination or interpretation, the activities described in the NASW constitution: “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 may be dense, but I honestly don’t understand the controversy. Not the definition question, I get that. I don’t understand what kind of ill people think a PIO president would do. Is there a power there I am ignorant of? Is there no way to remove someone abusing this power?

    Imagine that state legislators wanted to tighten freedom-of-information laws in a way that would make it easier for academic researchers to not disclose who was funding them. Science journalists would object; PIOs, who work for or alongside those researchers, might not.

    One of the major roles of a journalism organizations (aside from helping each other find jobs, of course!) is to have more clout in maintaining right-to-know and FOIA laws. Mixing journalists and PIOs could weaken that clout.

    I am afraid I’m with Jenny Morber. I have been asking pretty much the same thing.
    Maybe I underestimate NASW’s clout, but do we influence Freedom of Information laws?
    Could we have some more specific examples of how having a PIO president could harm the organization?

    And as Jenny asks, if someone was leading the organization astray, wouldn’t we just throw them out?
    I didn’t start out with a strong opinion about any of this, and, in fact, I still don’t have a strong opinion, but the objections to Rick’s amendment remain opaque to me.

    I too don’t need the difference between a journalist and a PIO explained to me (again) or journalistic conflict of interest either.

    I’ve been a PIO for 16 years; I was a reporter for five years before that. There is no question that I’ve had a much larger impact on science news as a PIO then I ever could have as a reporter, thanks to reporters who respected my news judgment. I’ve broken national stories and contributed sources to some of the biggest medical news since 2000. I and my colleagues have written important science stories — read by hundreds of thousands of faculty, alumni, students, staff, community members, etc. — that otherwise would not have been covered. There simply aren’t enough science “journalists” to cover all the science news, and news organizations don’t consider all science news worthy of reporting.

    The notion that I could have been an NASW officer when I was a medical reporter at the Montgomery (Ala) Advertiser or the Tennessean, but not as someone with a far greater understanding of science research as a PIO at major research universities, is ludicrous and insulting.

    I’ve presented at two NASW meetings. Both times the message to PIOs was: be more responsible, be more credible.

    As Earle pointed out, PIOs also fight back against special interests — ambitious faculty, eager administrators, corporations who want to ride the coat tails of globally branded universities.

    A more fractured NASW only benefits the special interest groups.

    However, a more cohesive and relevant NASW has the opportunity to strengthen science news, to make it more credible and more available at every level.

    What’s a journalist?

    A journalist is someone who must be ready, above all, to tell the stories that people or institutions in power don’t want told. This is the most essential job of the fourth estate, crucial to its integrity and to democracy and a free country. PIO and PR work does not share this agenda, and in fact has one in many ways opposite.

    David, that’s a great (and classic) definition of investigative journalism. But it’s too narrow to encompass all journalism.

    Agreed, Dan. Science writers tell a lot of stories that people want to be told. Your book on Toms River did both–it told stories that some people did not want told, and stories that people did want told. David is right to emphasize investigative reporting, because it’s hard to do, often expensive, and an easy thing to carve out of a newsroom budget.

    The distinction between reporters and PIOs is easy, in my view. Reporters’ allegiance is to their readers, listeners or viewers–and their editors and publishers should agree and back them up (though that’s not always the case). The allegiance of PIOs is to their institutions.


    Paul, with respect, even as a PIO for OSU, my allegiance has always been to the readers first, with no compromise. I have the scars to prove it! The fact that I could do it proves it possible.

    You and I have jousted over this one for decades. I have great respect for what you did at Ohio State, as you know–and I’m the father of a Michigan graduate.

    Is there any association of political journalists where also political communicators are full members? I doubt. What is the difference between political and science journalism? I don’t see a big difference.

    “You can’t define journalism and you can’t define journalist,” says Karl Bates, the director of research communications at Duke University. Let’s call this The Bates Challenge and take it up, preferably in as few characters as possible. Here’s my attempt: “Journalism is a set of practices in which the highest priority is the closest possible depiction of reality in the space and time available. When a communicator’s highest priority is to depict reality, she is functioning as a journalist, no matter who is paying her or what cause she seeks to advance.” So do some PIOs meet this definition more closely than some journalists? YES! Can a person be both a journalist and non-journalist? YES! – just not at the same moment, I would argue. So it’s easy to understand why this problem is so difficult for membership organizations like NASW, SEJ etc. who feel they must place PEOPLE, and not just PRACTICES, in one category or another. It’s a very difficult problem, and a perennial one. Your thoughts welcome.

    This point is well taken, Dan, but I don’t think there’s any harm in still attempting to draw bright lines — indeed, it might even be more important now than ever. I believe that to be true even if there are likely to be some exceptions and caveats and gray areas at the margins. However dwindling their numbers, and however expedient it might be to acquiesce to a “big tent” mentality, I find it heartening to know that there are some journalistic purists prepared to define themselves concretely and differently from other things. I’m even more encouraged to know that there are a few journalists so committed to the difference that they are willing to walk away from an organization that refuses to do the same. Are they foolish? Old fashioned? Overly dogmatic? Maybe so. But I like knowing they are out there.

    The fight that matters most is the fight to define journalism, not journalists. I will fight to the end to preserve and improve journalistic practices, and to evangelize for them to as many non-journalists as possible. That’s one of the reasons why I think NASW as currently constituted is useful, and why allowing non-journalists to be officers may ultimately make the group much less useful to everyone if it triggers the gradual departure of many full-time journalists, as I worry it will.

    Dan, I agree with your definition/explanation. I think it all eventually boils down to the writer’s ability to withstand pressures, be it a boss’ directives to a PIO or an editor’s directive to a journalist. We need to find ways to support writers’ defense of their own standards.

    We live in very challenging times for journalism generally, so it’s more important than ever that professionals maintain an open, probing conversation about the evolving nature of science journalism and science communications. I feel this might best be done not by having purists retreat to their own enclaves but by broadening the tent and debating the issues amongst ourselves. In any event, there are too many shades of gray to draw clear lines.

    Couldn’t agree more! As a relatively new freelancer I am surprised to learn of this rift between “pure journalists” and the rest of the science writing world. I transitioned from science to science journalism via the UC Santa Cruz program in 2004. Among our class of 10, some are freelancing and/or writing books, a few are PIOs, some have taken other types of jobs, and some of us are writers with supplementary income from other work and/or higher salaried spouses. I am in the spousally subsidized freelancer category. Are any of us “pure” journalists? Not likely or very few, I’d imagine. But we all had science backgrounds and similar training in writing/journalism, at least as students. I don’t understand why we cannot respect and learn from one another in the same professional organization.

    Deb, the idea that “science journalism is being hijacked by vested interests” is ludicrous. The media environment has changed radically in the last decade, largely thanks to the addition of “new media” outlets whose metrics of success differ greatly from those that we “old guard” types used when we were in the newsroom. The loss of fact-checkers and even copy desk people in today’s journalism arena clearly show that values have changed, so sticking to old platitudes that journalists are somehow fairer that other science communicators just isn’t accurate. I know many PIOs who do better journalism than many staffers, and who have fewer conflicts of interest, potential or otherwise, than staffers. And once you factor in the need by freelancers to earn a living by accepting assignments from a variety of organizations, you easily see that times have changed, and NASW needs to change as well.

    I think Deborah is only saying that it is not the death of science journalism yet. That there are still things that differenciate science journalism that are important enough to fight to preserve them. Are you saying that even that is not true anymore?

    Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying, that good, independent science journalism still exists and that if we value that kind of open-minded investigation of science by journalists, we should work together to keep it strong. I want to also say that I’m a long-time investigative journalist and I could not have done some of my best work without the determined help and integrity of university public information officers. None of this debate changes that.

    No, Pascal, I’m not saying that. In fact, I believe that they should be fought for, and I have. I’m saying that it is virtually impossible today to use the old arbitrary delineation of roles (“journalist,” versus PIO versus freelancer) in differentiating a writer’sprofessional activities, and that grouping them according to some perception of those roles is unfair and wrong. I’m a second generation journalist and strongly support traditional journalistic values.

    I’m not sure if repeating that the old delineation of roles are not pertinent is the right way to settle this. Everybody agree about that historical fact. The question for me seems to be, who will be defending what science journalism is specifically, if every dominant voice we are hearing is saying, at best, that the old lines are disappearing, and at worst, that there are no differences anymore between journalists and PIO.

    Earle, I’m going to be at that meeting and I’ll let you know if the case study they present is ludicrous or not. I’m a journalist and I like to make up my mind after actually reviewing the evidence. Now you may say that I’m an old-fashioned journalist – which would also be true – but my point in mentioning the presentation was mostly to say that these are not only U.S. concerns. And I am an old-time, long-time journalist and one who values history, as you know, so I’ll also add that journalism has always had a sensational, page-view, what we call clickbait now, element. Think of the circulation wars of the late 19th/early 20th century between Pulitzer and Hearst. The era of yellow journalism. I never bother to defend the purity or the excellence of the whole profession. But I will say again that journalism when it is done right – and it damn well still is by people I know and respect – brings independent inquiry and watchdog intelligence to our understanding of the world, including science. And – whatever the internal arguments over NASW’s future might be – all of us should want to preserve and, when deserved, to praise it.

    In terms of Deborah’s remarks about the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, let me amplify them by saying that a week Sunday the organization of which I am out-going president will introduce at its annual meeting an amended constitution to be approved by members. It will propose changing the name of the organization to Canadian Science Communicators and will allow non-journalists, PIOs and the like, for the first time to become possible future presidents and not have a specifically limited number of places on the organization’s board. The changes are being proposed after much deep and considered discussion by the present CSWA board as well as a sense that in the new media world to go forward we must reflect what our members actually do. The metaphorical umbrella for this is a slightly redacted quotation from the New Testament. “In my Father/Mother’s house are many mansions.”

    NASW has long allowed PIOs to be board members; in fact, three excellent ones sit on the board now. That’s not true with other organizations in the US; the American Health Care Journalists don’t allow PIOs as full members and the Society of Environmental Journalists is also restrictive. We’ve always tried to be inclusive. But the argument I hear from my science journalist friends regarding PIO officers is this: can a journalist belong to an organization in which the president is an employee of the U.S. government and represents the interests of a federal agency in their work? Some media organizations, like the Wall St. Journal, prohibit that anyway. So it does pose a conundrum for the future of the organization and there’s no doubt that it will change it in some profound ways that we’re all trying to figure out.

    Yes, we heard from Canadian science journalists that they were dealing with the same situation. And I saw that the European science journalists meeting this summer has a plenary session on whether independent science journalism is being hijacked by “vested interests.” To some extent, this just reflects the fact that more freelancers are combining multiple sources of income – but that, as you say, also reflects the economic instability in journalism itself. For those of us who recognize the importance of independent inquiry and the role of journalism in sustaining that, it’s definitely a step in a troubling direction. Thanks for adding the larger perspective here.

    It’s both reassuring and disturbing to discover, thanks to this article, that other science communication/journalism/writing bodies are having this debate; reassuring because it means we aren’t the only ones wrestling with the tension between science journalists and science communicators, but disturbing because it signals that science journalists and journalism have lost ground not just here (Australia) but in the US as well. If science journalism’s ranks were healthy and thriving, I doubt this issue would have arisen, but we are fewer in number than ever before and that is not a position of strength.

    Yes, I too had that reaction. We had a prolonged debate about the issue in South Africa, which ultimately led to us coining a new term: science media practitioner, to cover a range of fields/modalities. While science communicators broadly share many interests and concerns – and we are few, so need each other’s support – I still find myself gnawing away at the problem of how to ensure and maintain independence in the teeth of so many conflicting interests and pressures. A subject worthy of serious discussion on a global basis surely.

    Yes, I’m now thinking this would make a great session at the World Conference of Science Journalists in 2017. And since I’m program chair….:)

    I would suggest that instead of a general discussion the session ask the specific question: Should We Change Our Name To the “World Federation of Science Communicators”? In regard to that I personally would mention that a few years ago when I tried to convince the WFSJ to let the CSWA engage with it to mentor science bloggers who weren’t traditional science journalists I was sternly told: “The Federation cannot support public information officers and scientists. We can only support journalists or individuals who are in a process of becoming journalists.”

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