Should journalists and public information officers be members of the same professional organization?

A Looming Rift in Science Journalism

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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