Science Writers Board Says No to PIOs

Leaders of the National Association of Science Writers oppose allowing public information professionals to run the group. It might not matter.


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?


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.'”

See What Others Are Saying

6 comments / Join the Discussion

    I spent 25 years as a journalist, the last 15 as a university PIO and am about to retire and do some freelancing. While I understand the reasoning of those who oppose the amendment, I believe their fears are unwarranted. No self-respecting PIO is going to vote for officers who are self-interested flacks for a company or group with a commercial interest to push or even for a government/university PIO who is shamelessly self-interested. I don’t know the numbers, but I believe most of the PR people in NASW are PIOs for universities or other research organizations or government agencies, not corporate PR people. I just don’t see that by allowing PIOs to be top officers we are somehow corrupting a journalistic organization.

    I was neutral early on, but I plan to vote for the amendment — in part because I don’t like the threats by some journalists to leave. It will be their loss if they do.

    I have been following this debate from the sidelines, as a longtime NASW member who joined as a full-time journalist and then became a PIO for a nonprofit research institute. I get the arguments on both sides. But I also appreciate the existential implications for an organization whose name contains the words “science writers” and not “science journalists.” Would NASW want to be a professional organization mainly for science journalists (like the Association of Health Care Journalists, which is primarily for journalists but has a separate category of membership for PIOs)? If NASW went that route, it’s a fair bet that many PIOs — who make up the majority of NASW membership — would leave the organization. Could NASW survive under that model?

    Tom, thanks for these thoughts — it is for many of us non-journalists (not just PIOs) exactly what we hear and what we feel. And I would hasten to point out that this hasn’t “become” a divisive issue; it was labeled divisive at the time (1998) the two-caste membership system was abolished — I should know, because Earle Holland and I were the two PIOs who pushed the issue then, and which the journalist (then called “active”) members, who alone could vote on constitutional issues, approved by a wide margin. To their great credit, I might add, and with the support of forward-thinking NASW leadership. I have asked a succession of Boards and officers over the intervening almost two decades to end this last vestige of a professional caste system in the organization. I have been assured repeatedly that the “time just wasn’t right” to address this issue, it was just too confrontational for journalists — while the number of staff journalist members continued to dwindle until it now represents the smallest minority in an organization of journalists writing wholly for journalism platforms, freelancers, and PIOs (and the article here doesn’t quite spell it out, but the folks who say they will quit are 10% of the remaining self-identified journalists, not of the entire membership, although some of our most cherished members and my personally valued colleagues are part of the 10%), as the professional environment has changed so dramatically that most science freelance writers don’t have the luxury of turning down well-paid institutional writing jobs that could bar them from holding office, and as it has become more likely that the science writing you see pop up in your social media stream comes directly from a PIO or freelancer instead of being mediated through a legacy journalism site. And every time I brought it up I was told that I could use the petition process provided by the constitution if I felt strongly about it. So I did. This should have been neither unexpected nor shocking to anyone in leadership or the membership. I announced my plans to formulate and circulate a petition a year in advance; was very open about doing so; kep the Board, officers, and staff apprised of this plan; presented the petition publicly at our business meeting in Boston; and engaged vigorous debate at the meeting — and that’s why we will vote on this in San Antonio.
    The Board and the Ad Hoc Committee both refer to the amendment being “the wrong answer to the wrong problem.” To me, the central problem is that many of us pay the same dues, invest the same sweat equity in volunteerism and civic duty, and yet are not deemed worthy to hold office. That is just wrong, and that is a problem. The amendment is the right answer to this problem, the central problem. Is it the only problem, and will it make all our other hard feelings go away magically if the amendment passes? Of course not; more will need to be done to shift the attitudes that underlie the divisiveness. Are democratic principles of governance in a membership organization worth fighting for even if they aren’t the complete solution? I happen to think they are, and this was the energizing factor for all of us who signed the petition — more than twice the number required by the constitution — to put this issue before the membership for a vote. In our quest for alternate solutions, we’ve given NASW 20 years to come up with some, and sought guidance for alternate solutions as I developed and circulated the petition, and only now that the vote is imminent is the Board inclined to consider a “listening tour” to come up with alternatives. But Tom is right in observing that alternatives to full enfranchisement in NASW are not likely to address our core concerns.
    But above and beyond this, again in my opinion only and not necessarily part of the calculus that other petitioners invoked when they put pen to ink, is that I think it is downright disingenuous for NASW to continue to act and position itself publicly as though it is a professional association of journalists when it hasn’t been such for 20 years, and when it falls farther and farther short of that aspiration with each year we move into the 21st century. The membership now comprises many more people who do outright PIO work or some form of mixed writing that includes institutional representation than it does members whose only income derives from journalism per se, and the number of the nation’s top science writers who are *not* members of NASW outstrips those who are by larger margins every year — and this was a concern on the Board even before the 1998 vote. To claim otherwise invites cynicism and disbelief.
    That’s one reason why I am less than persuaded by arguments that veteran journalists will have to leave NASW at the decree of their employers if the amendment passes, or freelancers will have to turn down assignments from editors who require a purity pledge that forbids fraternizing with PIOs. If editors don’t already sanction staff writers or freelancers because NASW has more PIO members than staff journalist members, or because its governing Board includes PIO members, or because its programs and activities also support the directors of public information offices, I fail to see this additional step will be the death knell. And in fact when I raised this for a reality check with Phil Corbett, standards editor of the NYT, he said he could find no reason why their staff journalists couldn’t continue to enjoy NASW fellowship if the amendment were approved — it represented little change in their minds to what they already recognize NASW to be. If, on the other hand, these staff journalists and freelance members have not already been honest with their editors about their membership in NASW, what NASW is, who its members are, and the critical role PIOs already play in its day to day operations, then I would say this is either willful deception or a nostalgic wish for the old days when it might have been otherwise (although you’d have to go *very* far back in NASW history for that).
    This conversation was never intended as an “us vs them” issue by proponents of the amendment, but rather as an “us & them” issue, a genuine attempt at formalizing the inclusive organization I (and many others) hoped to move us toward by joining, by pushing the 1998 amendment, and by offering the amendment before us now. No one regrets the hard line some have taken in opposing this amendment more than I. It says a great deal, as Robin notes above, that journalistic coverage of this issue is all about the “split” and the “existential crisis” and not about the common ground and common values we share — and all deserve an equal stake in — as we leverage our affiliation with NASW to communicate about science, health, and technology.

    I am sorry this has become such a divisive issue. I have benefitted greatly from being a NASW member and worry about its future.

    For those who support the amendment I have to ask why now? You knew the rules going in when you joined. How would the organization be better if PIOs were officers?

    Thanks for highlighting the board’s statement, Tom. Your write-up gives a full and fair description of the statement and the nuance we worked so hard to achieve. But I sure do wish the headline had been something other than “Board Says No to PIOs.” That’s the exact kind of shorthand that many of us were worried about when we worked on that statement.

    Speaking for myself, the main reason I oppose the amendment has less to do with the whole debate over who’s a journalist and whether non-journalists are getting enough respect in the organization. The main reason I oppose it is for what it has come to represent — a showdown between us versus them, in which nobody will win and the organization as a unified entity will lose.

    NASW has been a great resource throughout my professional life, which is why I’ve been a member since 1979 (how could I be that old??) and why I’ve devoted tons of unpaid hours to volunteering in various capacities, especially in the past 15 years as I’ve felt more stable in my own career and felt the importance of giving back to the community in some way. The organization I’ve been devoted to, one that made me feel welcome as a young unknown and that has put me in touch with so many amazing people, is what’s being threatened, which is why I joined the rest of the board in writing up our statement.

    I actually just wish we could move on from this particular petition and seek a better solution to the hurt and anger that so many PIO members are feeling. But that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

    While opposition to the amendment is unanimous on the board, the 14 of us constitute a variety of professional roles — and, believe me, a variety of personalities — and we come to our unanimous opposition for a variety of reasons. I’ve just expressed mine, and there are probably 13 more that the other board members can express. But I gotta say, emphatically, that “Say No to PIOs” was not part of the reasoning for any of us.

    Thanks Robin. I agree that the headline doesn’t fully capture the nuance of the board’s position. At the same time, for all of the nuance and soft-stepping, it’s hard to ignore the simplicity of what the PIOs behind this amendment proposal seem to be after, which is full and unqualified participation in the organization at all levels. While it’s clear that some board members would prefer that the discussion focus on alternative solutions, that preference carries with it an implied rejection of what the petitioners really want. I don’t see any way around that.

    Of course, I say all of this strictly as an observer — and self-identified journalist — who has never held membership in NASW. But from this vantage, when a group of likeminded individuals say they want something, and those in power suggest they should want something else — well, that strikes me as a “no,” however qualified. I’m sure it hits the ears of many PIO members that way.

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