Members of the National Association of Science Writers have a tough decision to make.

Science Writers Board Says No to PIOs

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The board of the National Association of Science Writers, a decades-old professional organization, has weighed in on an issue that has critically divided the group’s membership. The question: Should the NASW constitution be amended to allow public information professionals — that is, those who write for or otherwise represent the interests of universities, government agencies, and other non-journalistic organizations — to ascend to the topmost positions on the group’s governing board?

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The current board, which is made up of both journalists and public information officers, or PIOs, issued an unequivocal and apparently unanimous opinion on that question Friday evening: No.

“Our opposition to the amendment does not mean that we believe that the current arrangement – which allows all members to serve as board members but permits only journalists to serve as secretary, treasurer, vice-president, and president – is ideal,” the board members wrote. “It is a compromise, the roots of which go back a few decades to an earlier debate that came close to causing a permanent rift in our ranks.”

But that compromise, the board suggested, was made at a time when the roles of journalists and PIOs were more clearly defined — and when the Internet had not yet undercut the business models of many legacy media organizations, or democratized the ability to create and globally distribute information. “The world in which we live today, where it is increasingly uncommon for aspiring science writers to begin their careers as staff members or full-time employees in any role,” the board said, “requires new thinking.”

Just what that new thinking might entail remains unclear, though the board suggested that it would be continuing to monitor the mood of NASW’s membership ahead of a vote on the proposed amendment, which is scheduled for October 29th, during the organization’s next business meeting in San Antonio, Texas.

Members of the National Association of Science Writers have a tough decision to make.

Members of the National Association of Science Writers have a tough decision to make.

That vote might well be an existential one for the 82-year-old organization. As noted here at Undark late last month, a long-awaited report from an ad-hoc committee — formed to examine the potential impacts of allowing PIOs to lead NASW — found that roughly 10 percent of journalists planned to leave the group if the proposed amendment passed. In its statement on Friday, the board further acknowledged that “dozens of high-profile journalists have made it clear that they are among those who would depart.”

Those departures, the ad-hoc committee concluded, would likely spur additional egress, threatening the very existence of NASW. “If we are to thrive as an organization, we cannot be divided into competing camps of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’” the board argued in its public statement. “We must remember that we are all united in our efforts to ensure that fair, accurate, and thought-provoking information about science reaches the general public.”

Whether or not that’s strictly so is an open question for many NASW members, and deep differences of opinion between PIOs and journalists have been on display on social media and other public forums — including at this publication — since the ad-hoc committee’s report was released.

“Nobody calls PIOs unethical out loud, yet 8 percent of the survey respondents said the mere taint of having [a PIO] elected vice president would force them to leave NASW to protect their journalistic purity (while wiping the crumbs of another university-sponsored free food/open bar party off their laps),” wrote Karl Leif Bates, director of research communications at Duke University, in a discussion at Undark last week. “That’s the sort of thing that insults us, yes.”

David Dobbs, a freelance journalist and contributor to The New York Times, National Geographic, and other publications, reflected the mood of many journalists in responding to Bates. “I don’t have to see PIO work as unethical (and I don’t) to feel compelled to leave the NASW if this measure passes,” Dobbs wrote. “I must leave because some of the publications I write for stipulate that I cannot be a member of organizations in which membership might create apparent conflicts of interest.”

In its statement on Friday, the NASW board lamented these sorts of exchanges, and suggested that the amendment itself was both regressive and potentially destructive for the organization. It also sought to remind membership that the four top positions on the governing board are largely administrative, and have no special influence over the direction of the group. “[T]his amendment has us staring down the past,” the board wrote. “It is, in the words of the NASW Constitutional Review Ad-Hoc Committee, the wrong answer to the wrong question.”

Whether enough PIOs will become convinced of that between now and October 29th remains to be seen. As it stands, those members who identify, at least partly, as public information officers outnumber those who identify solely as journalists, and many of those PIOs see no reason why the latter group should be privileged over the former — however slight that privilege might be in practice.

“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.,” wrote Rick Borchelt, communications director for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, a former NASW board member, and the author of the proposed constitutional amendment, at Undark last month.

“At some point,” Borchelt added, “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.’”

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