Science Journalists Vs. Public Information Officers

Despite recent disagreements over who should control the professional group to which they both belong, the battle ended decades ago.

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In a thoughtful and troubling article here at Cross Sections last Friday, co-anchor Aleszu Bajak wrote that the National Association of Science Writers — the nation’s oldest professional organization for science journalists — “is in the midst of an existential crisis” and that “the internal strife could well tear it apart.”

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Bajak’s story described a report by an NASW committee charged with evaluating a constitutional amendment that would allow non-journalist members — mostly communications professionals who write press releases for universities, non-profits and others — to become NASW officers. Currently, the NASW constitution requires that the four officers be journalists.

The committee noted that it’s often hard to tell which members are journalists, which aren’t, and which wander back and forth across that undefended border. Some members told the committee they would leave NASW if the constitution were to be amended; others said they would leave if things didn’t change.

Bajak’s piece has received dozens of comments at this writing, but much of the discussion fails to acknowledge an important point: The battle between journalists and public information officers ended nearly 20 years ago. The PIOs won.

Public relations professionals and science journalists aren't getting along. Maybe they shouldn't belong to the same professional group?  (Visual by iStock.com)

Public relations professionals and science journalists aren’t getting along. Maybe they shouldn’t belong to the same professional group? (Visual by iStock.com)

“Who are science writers these days?” NASW’s president at the time, Richard Harris, asked in the Spring/Summer 1998 issue of NASW’s member publication, ScienceWriters (membership required to view). “And what is the purpose of NASW?”

Back then, NASW had about 1,000 dues-paying constituents who fell into one of two membership tiers: Active Members (journalists) or Associates (public information officers). Because members represented what Harris described as a “continuous spectrum” of jobs, some NASW members — including Harris — reckoned there was no point in maintaining those two different tiers. “Instead,” he noted, “the new constitution recognizes that we are all simply Members.”

Of course, as we all know, that wasn’t entirely true: A small and dissonant caveat was simultaneously added to the constitution stipulating that the officers on NASW’s board must be journalists — a nod to “our journalistic roots,” Harris wrote.

The move was largely designed to placate journalist members like me (I was NASW’s treasurer at the time, and later served as president), who opposed equal membership status for PIOs. But it was a purely political compromise that didn’t mean much. NASW was now officially a more heterogeneous organization.

Given all this, taking the final step today and allowing non-journalists to become officers would be more of a cosmetic change than anything else, as PIOs have held the political — and numerical — advantage in NASW since the Associate Member category was dropped.

That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons for concern. The proposed constitutional amendment animating today’s divisive debate would technically allow an operative of a tobacco lobbying firm like Hill+Knowlton to rise to the presidency of NASW — an outcome that would surely disturb the slumber of founding president and Pulitzer prizewinning science journalist David Dietz.

I don’t think that’s very likely. No such troubling PIO has risen to claim an ordinary board seat in the two decades since full membership was extended, and even if such a candidate were to pursue the organization’s top slot, he or she wouldn’t likely be elected. (I’m aware that the same is being said of Donald Trump.)

Still, it was probably foolish to believe, then as now, that journalists and PIOs — whose goals sometimes overlap, but just as often are at odds — would ever entirely get along within the same dues-paying organization. An organizational break-up might be precisely what we need.

The creation of a National Association of Science Journalists to complement the National Association of Science Writers would permanently end all the arguments. Those who aren’t sure which group they should join might think very hard about where to go — which could be a useful exercise for a lot of us. In the end, some would opt for journalism, while others would embrace institutional work. And those who wander back and forth might join both.

And best of all: Friendships would be preserved. The two groups could meet jointly to share resources and speakers. Officer slots would be open to everyone, in one group or the other. And we’d still get nice discounts on blocks of hotel rooms.

See What Others Are Saying

40 comments / Join the Discussion

    This discussion makes me sad. I have given many years of volunteer labor for NASW, both on the board and as NASW’s liaison to the Authors Coalition of America. I have friends in both camps of the debate over the nature of journalism, and I would hate to see our organization break apart. That’s because for me, the purpose of NASW is to serve our members in these increasingly difficult times, especially those who are having increasing difficulty making a living as the economic basis of traditional media has vanished. This to me is the meaning of the second part of the NASW statement of purpose, the advancement of the interests of our members, which I proposed as an amendment to the constitution in order to qualify for membership in the AC. I believe that the proposed break would make if more difficult to accomplish this important goal, especially for the people who need it most, the freelances who would probably follow the prestigious journalists into the new NASJ.

    This is because of the reality of how and why we receive the AC money, which is what pays for many of the services NASW provides, especially such important ones as travel fellowships, career grants and support for the workshops. I, too, am coming late to the discussion, and I have nothing to contribute to the debate about the definition of journalism. I can, however, offer some clarification on the issue of the Authors Coalition, especially in light of the proposal to split.

    First, it’s important to understand how an organization gets into AC. To qualify, it must be be national and not discriminate on any of the commonly prohibited grounds. It must receive no more than a quarter or its income from sources other than dues, publications or conference payments. And it must represent 500 “authors” (or their estates). The combination of these two factors makes me wonder whether the proposed NASJ would be able to qualify for AC membership.

    I believe I’ve seen it said that 10% of the membership might leave if the amendment passed. Given NASW’s current membership of around 2300, that might mean 200-300 people leaving for the new NASJ. On the face of it, that doesn’t appear to be enough people to qualify for the AC. As I’ll explain below, AC doesn’t actually count people, but rather checks on the genre survey, and some people count for more than one check (although often not journalists who have only worked as staffers). So it’s possible that NASJ could qualify, but, if so, it might be tight. And, of course, the amount received would be a fraction of what NASW now receives. If, as also suggested, NASJ were to receive funding from a foundation or some other ethically acceptable source, the amount would have to be kept below the prescribed limit in order not to jeopardize the right to receive AC funds. Of course, it could be that a benefactor would be willing to pay so much that AC funds were not necessary, which would be great as long as NASJ stayed in the benefactor’s good graces. By the way, as Richard mentions, NASW has the status of a trade association, which means that it cannot receive tax-free donations. If NASJ were to want to do that, it would have to adopt a different legal status, which would impose different requirements and limitations on its activities.

    Next, in response to Richard’s comment that receiving AC money recognizes us as an association of authors, I have to say that as far as the AC is concerned, “author” is a term of art. It carries no implication about any of the considerations that have been discussed in this conversation, such as independence or freedom from conflict of interest or anything of the sort. In AC parlance, it roughly means anyone (or the estate of anyone) who has produced and published (but, with some exceptions, not self-published) works that can reasonably be assumed to have been circulated abroad. Anyone who has filled out the AC genre questionnaire knows that this includes those who have written books of all kinds; are “journalists” (that is, writers for periodicals, both staffers and freelances); have written fiction,poems, translations and reviews of books, art, theater, film and music; and are editors at newspapers and technical and professional presses. In addition, the AC recognizes “authors” of music and visual art. So the whole journalist-nonjournalist debate is irrelevant to AC. The partnership is interested not in journalistic independence but in payment for use of copyrighted material.

    As to Earle’s comment that the ad hoc committee report says that NASW’s AC money would not be affected, that is essentially true, except that the amount would very likely be lower if NASW lost 10% of its membership. But given its size, NASW appears unlikely to lose its eligibility.

    Given the nature of the discussion thus far, these considerations may appear trivial or crass. But I think they need to be stated in order to make sure that people understand the potential ramifications of what we may be doing.

    For myself, I, too, very much wish that there could be a compromise that could keep our venerable organization together while assuaging the feelings of those members who feel themselves demeaned by the current arrangements. I don’t know what that compromise might be, but I agree that we should seek it, and quickly. Having been a freelance writer of magazine articles and books for all of my career, with occasional detours into things such as writing reports for nonprofit groups such as the National Academies, I think that I see the delineation less sharply. And having been an NASW officer and board member, member and chair of several committees, and presenter at the workshops, I appreciate the contributions of members who do many kinds of work. Having read of the Bates Challenge, I’ll offer what I guess we can call the Rodney King Challenge: can’t we find a way to all get along? We’ve done so since Grandpa Shurkin was a baby. It would be a shame to stop now.

    You are assuming that the 200-300 odd journalists who would leave are the only ones likely to join a new National Association of Science Journalists. There could be any number of journos out there who have refrained from joining NASW, precisely because of the questions now being hotly debated, who would be happy to join a new NASJ.

    This is true. I have no idea how many people would join the hypothetical NASJ. Who knows, I might do so myself, though without also leaving NASW. All I wanted to point out was that this new organization could not receive Coalition funds until it attained the required number of author members. I have no idea how hard or easy that would be. Maybe there are hundreds of “pure” journalists so offended by NASW’s constitution that they have declined to join. My own observations of the journalism landscape over the past two decades lead me to believe that this is not highly likely, but I could very well be wrong.

    Thanks so much, Beryl, for this excellent explanation of the high bar a new organization would face if it decided to go it alone without subsidy from a well-heeled philanthropy or corporate sponsor, and how Authors Coalition funding would not be threatened by adoption of the amendment per se.

    I also feel compelled to include here, because the numbers have been reported variously in this forum, what the Ad Hoc Committee actually found when it asked how members would react to passage of this amendment:

    >>Effect on membership numbers
    ● 54 people (of 658 complete respondents, or about 8%) say they are likely or extremely likely to leave NASW if the proposed constitutional change is made.
    ○ 48 of these 54 people self­identify as journalists.
    ○ 13% of journalists and 2% of non­journalists indicate they are likely or extremely
    likely to leave if the proposed change is made.
    ● 25people(4%)saytheyarelikelyorextremelylikelytoleaveifthechangeisn​otm​ade.

    ○ 20 of these people are PIOs and 4 are journalists. One identifies as “Other.”<<

    The Ad Hoc Committee never asked how many people would leave; it combined the two categories "likely" and "very likely" to leave to derive the aggregate number of about 8% (slightly higher for self-described journalists). Would this hold true for the membership broadly, or is this number higher among those journalists who feel strongly about this issue and thus were more likely to return the survey? Only about a quarter of the entire membership felt strongly enough about this issue to even respond to the survey.

    Now, I think the loss of even one of our journalist members if this amendment passes, or even one of our nonjournalist members if this amendment does not pass, would be exceptionally regrettable. This is where the leadership of the Board and the officers is most needed now, to assure journalists, freelancers, PIOs and all other science writers that their contributions to the landscape of science writing are equally valued, and to support a mechanism that makes this equity publicly evident. The Board and officers at the time the 1998 amendment passed to eliminate the second-class membership for nonjournalists, stepped up to this challenge, where the conversation was just as heated and the threats to leave if that amendment passed were just as vocal (if not as well quantified as in the Ad Hoc Committee's excellent analysis). In the event, the mass exodus did not happen. NASW did not wink out of existence. Leadership's calm support of this step toward equity made all the difference then and it could now.

    As president of NASW in 1989, I worked to abolish the “A” and “B” class of membership because I saw that many members didn’t fall neatly into the journalist camp or the PIO camp. It’s very odd to see that trope reemerge in this current discussion.

    To me the matter is quite simple: The president (and president-elect) of NASW should not have a conflict of interest. What might that conflict be? Well, someone who works for the government, or a university or a corporation — and whose job is to nudge news coverage to make their employer look good — has a conflict of interest and should not have a leadership role in an organization that represents journalists.

    I don’t see it as a problem for a democratically elected board to include a wide representation of the membership. But I draw the line at leadership. (This is not an issue for local science-writers groups, which serve primarily as social organizations).

    It’s also worth considering the purpose of NASW. We serve our members (our tax status puts us in the same category as a chamber of commerce, for instance). We provide meetings and discussion forums. But we also represent journalists in professional and international forums. NASW would not be eligible for the hundreds of thousands of dollars we get from the Authors Coalition if we weren’t recognized as an organization of authors. We also give out journalism awards, in which the judges are journalists, not people primarily funded by institutions.

    Read the constitution. It doesn’t say that PIO’s are second-class citizens. It simply spells out conflicts of interest that disqualify people from being officers, and that includes activities that manipulate journalists. If NASW is taken over by people who don’t understand why that’s a conflict of interest, of course I would leave. Any thoughtful journalist would.

    Richard, the ad hoc committee’s report specifically says the change would not jeopardize the Authors Coalition money.

    I am late to this debate. I weighed in with the investigating committee, recalling the period in the 1990s when I was President of NASW and we tried to professionalize the organization, brining it up to journalism standards seen in counterpart beat reporting groups. I’m stunned to see where this has ended up, and the very idea of putting PIOs in charge of Journalism is so shocking, I honestly thought I was reading false reporting.

    If a separate journalists-only group is formed, I would be delighted to join it.

    If NASW tips the scales, blowing up the firewall between public relations and journalism I will, at the very least, be highly distressed.

    We are in a difficult time, of course: We all know that internet news/blogs/PR/Journalism/social media “reporting” have blurred lines so significantly that no one can confidently predict the future of Big J Journalism. I recently had a briefing from execs at Facebook who told me that 40% of Americans get most or all of their news via Facebook — and that jumps to 70% for Millennials. What is “news” on Facebook — a blur of hyperlinked “stuff” that mixes press releases, corporate promos, snarky social media commentary and actual journalism.

    It pains me deeply that colleagues are dying trying to bring truth and depth to public discourse, and their work in the public consciousness stands equally beside a gmish of crap flying at them via Facebook or Yahoo or Huffington Post or Twitter. When I got home from the Ebola epidemic in 2014 and was confined to my apartment for 21 days I had the chance to catch up on media coverage of the outbreak, and was utterly flabbergasted by how much of the narrative was dominated by people who never set foot on the entire continent of Africa, much less in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Gunea in the middle of the epidemic. When is the last time you were certain that a commentary you read about Syria was written by a reporter who’d actually set foot in the Middle East?

    I miss the days when a rigid firewall separated the newsroom from the advertising division at the newspaper, when Frank Mankiewicz went to battle with Congress to create clear separations of money and power to protect NPR from the politicians’ cloying demands, when news organizations set aside funds to pay for reporters’ travel in order to assure no accusation of “taking money from the Pentagon” could be leveled against embed reporters…..Sigh.

    This is all terribly troubling. I’m sorry so many pals on the PIO side do not see this.

    Long ago there was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune by name of Crewdson who spent an inordinate amount of time and money doggedly tracking Robert Gallo, proving the NCI researcher “stole HIV samples” from the Pasteur Institute. To his critics who charged his work amounted to a character assassination Crewdson famously denounced science beat reporters, saying, “they aren’t journalists, they’re stenographers.” We Science Journalists of course took great offense

    Flash forward 30 years and maybe Crewdson had a point: will NASW be an association of PR + stenographers?

    Them’s my 2 cents.

    Laurie is right. So is Richard. I’ve spent parts of my career as a PI, parts as a journalist. NASW is stronger because all sorts of science WRITERS are full members; the standards of quality for science writing are strengthened across the whole range of practice because we all agree that there are standards. PI work, even done very well, does contain inherent conflicts of interest and for that reason the officers of NASW should be journalists, as long as journalism lasts.

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