The Other Big Vote: The Future of Science Journalism

As you may have heard, there’s a big vote coming up, the outcome of which will shape the future of this grand experiment we’re engaged in. On one side is a group of people who feel they’ve been disrespected and condescended to by “elites.” Instead of working toward actual solutions, their leaders are using extremist rhetoric and broad, unsubstantiated claims to fuel their calls for a revolution. On the other side are proponents of the status quo, including virtually all elected representatives. They argue that while there are things that need to be fixed in our current system, signing up for radical change would recklessly endanger the very institution that binds us together.


I am talking, of course, about the vote that will take place this Saturday in San Antonio on whether to amend the National Association of Science Writers’ constitution to allow those working in public relations to lead the group. If you’re reading this column, you’re likely already aware of how contentious and vitriolic this debate has become.

Discussion of the vote’s repercussions have focused largely on its potential effects on the group’s makeup: In a survey that was conducted as part of an NASW ad-hoc committee’s report on the amendment, close to 10 percent of responding NASW members said they would resign if the amendment passed and around 5 percent said they would leave if it did not. (Because the first group is disproportionately made up of high-profile journalists, there is concern that that a first wave of departures could lead to a much more significant exodus. NASW has more than 2,500 members and a little more than a quarter of them responded to the survey. Of that group, 39 percent labeled themselves as only journalists, 17 percent labeled themselves as only PIOs, and 22 percent classified themselves as “other.”)

I take concerns about NASW’s membership seriously. (Full disclosure: I’ve belonged to NASW since 2011 and have been an elected member of NASW’s 15-person board since 2014, well before I began writing the Tracker. This column is a reflection of my personal views and not those of the board.) But I would adamantly oppose this amendment even if it had no effect on membership at all. Its passage would threaten the group’s ability to fulfill our primary and stated purpose, which is “to foster the dissemination of accurate information regarding science and technology … in keeping with the highest standards of journalism.”

COUNTERPOINT: Rick Borchelt, a public information officer with the Department of Energy, explains why he believes the National Association of Science Writers should end what he calls a caste system.

COUNTERPOINT: Rick Borchelt, a public information officer with the Department of Energy, explains why he believes the National Association of Science Writers should end what he calls a “caste system.”

To understand how we got here, it’s helpful to know a little about NASW’s history. It stretches back to 1934, when a dozen science reporters launched the group at a meeting in New York. Over the past 82 years, as the role and meaning of science journalism have changed multiple times, NASW has changed along with it. In the 1930s, the group viewed reporting on science and promoting its appreciation as inextricably linked. In the 1940s, as science boomed and became increasingly specialized, science reporters took on an increased role in science popularization. By the time NASW was incorporated in 1955, there were two different categories of members: one for journalists and one for other types of science writers, including public information officers, academics, and educators.

This type of multi-tiered membership is not unusual among journalism organizations: The American Medical Writers Association and the Society of Environmental Journalists, among many other groups, function in that manner. But by the 1990s, an increasingly vocal group of PIOs within NASW viewed that arrangement as unfair — or even discriminatory. In 1998, after a debate that threatened to rip the group apart, NASW abolished different types of membership and allowed any member, regardless of professional status, to run for a seat on its board.

But one distinction remained. A “substantial majority” of the work of the four board members who also served as NASW officers (president, vice president, treasurer, and secretary) had to be journalistic in nature. In many ways, the effects of this requirement are more cosmetic than concrete. The fact that NASW’s officers are journalists has no effect on the makeup of the board or on the group’s priorities or decisions. NASW officers’ votes do not count any more than those of the rest of the board. The president does not set the agenda for meetings, the secretary does not decide what gets entered into the official record, and the treasurer does not make decisions about our budget.

In fact, virtually the only time officers are called on to fill a meaningful role is when they need to serve as the public face or speak on behalf of the organization. That reality has left me nonplussed by some of the rhetoric coming from the amendment’s supporters. Karl Bates, Duke University’s director of research communications, has compared NASW’s current arrangement to the apartheid policies that maintained white minority rule in South Africa in a message board post restricted to NASW members. Rick Borchelt, the head of the Office for Communication and Public Affairs at the Department of Energy and the amendment’s sponsor, likened journalists opposed to his campaign to extremists opposing gay rights and said that the treatment of PIOs is akin to the unconstitutional racial profiling caused by the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy.

Those parallels would be comical if they weren’t so offensive, as would the paranoid claims that opposition to the amendment is the result of a belief among journalists that PIOs are unethical. I’ve spoken to more than three dozen people, both in my capacity as an NASW board member and while reporting for this column, and I haven’t found a single journalist who believes that to be true. What is true is that journalists and PIOs have different roles and responsibilities — and that those responsibilities affect the ways in which we are able to speak out in public.

Eight years ago, when President Obama came into office, he vowed there would be unprecedented transparency across all departments of the federal government. In reality, as journalists are all too aware, the Obama administration has been among the most secretive in history. In September, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists sent a letter to the White House, “to express deep concern about, and urge greater openness and transparency from, the federal government.”

More than 40 other groups signed on to the letter — including NASW. Lending our name to the cause of the free flow of information was one of the easiest decisions the board has made during my tenure. Along with mentorship and support for those at the start of their careers, this type of advocacy is among the most important functions professional journalism societies can serve.

It is also this type of work that would be threatened if NASW voted to change its constitution. Imagine, for instance, a scenario where the association’s president is employed by a federal agency that is refusing to release information to the public. It wouldn’t be fair to ask that person sign a letter protesting a policy she was also responsible for enforcing, just as it wouldn’t be fair to open NASW to charges of outside influence if its board chose not to protest the decision. (This is not far-fetched: In 2009, a freelancer filed a lawsuit against Borchelt’s employer, the Department of Energy, because of its refusal to comply with her Freedom of Information Act request. The reporter was seeking documents related to the department’s investigation of fraud allegations at one of Borchelt’s previous employers, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.)

In an era in which writers at all stages of their careers are supporting themselves through a portfolio of jobs and assignments, I believe NASW’s big-tent approach is a source of strength. The discussions leading up to Saturday’s vote have made it clear that PIOs feel unrecognized and underappreciated. That is a problem that requires actual change. A move that could devastate the association’s ranks and undermine its ability to act publicly is not the way to go.