Science Journalists Vs. Public Information Officers

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.”


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

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

“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.