Some Questions and Thoughts on the NASW Officer Debate

Hey there, folks. This is some inside-baseball ruminating about the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), so feel free to skip this one if that’s not up your alley.

At issue is a longstanding debate about a section in the NASW constitution that defines who can (and cannot) serve as an officer in the organization. The language, in Article IV, Section 1, states that: “The elected officers of the Association shall consist of a president, a vice-president who shall be president-elect, a treasurer, and a secretary, who shall all be ex officio directors. A substantial majority of an officer’s science-writing activities shall be journalism. Officers may not write press releases or otherwise act on behalf of an institution or company to affect media coverage while they serve in office. Officers who engage in such activities shall notify the Board immediately. They may remain on the Board, but the Board shall appoint another fully qualified member to carry out the officer duties.”

There is currently an amendment before the membership of NASW that would alter the language to allow any member to serve as an officer. That amendment has amped up the debate over not only who should be able to serve as an officer, but about the nature of NASW itself, as well as its future as an organization. That subject has been written about a fair amount in recent months, such as in these three pieces in Undark (here, here, and here).

Lots of people have written a lot of thoughtful arguments about this issue – one need look no further than many of the comments on the Undark posts I linked to above – so I won’t spend a lot of time hashing out the issues myself. Instead, I’ll lay out my (somewhat conflicted) feelings on it in brief terms. But I do have some fundamental questions that I’m hoping someone can answer for me. (And, to be clear, these are not rhetorical questions, or loaded ones. I’m honestly curious.)

My Conflicted Thoughts re: the Proposed NASW Amendment

In general: 1). I think there are many overlapping areas of interest and skillsets among NASW members of any stripe – and, therefore, NASW can be a valuable organization to reporters, public information officers (or PIOs, such as university science writers, including myself), authors, editors, and others; 2). I also think there are clear, fundamental differences between the job of being a reporter and being a PIO; 3). I’m okay with a PIO being an officer, but I understand the concerns among reporters; 4). I’m not sure what is to be gained (by reporters or PIOs) from a PIO serving as an officer, other than that it is an indication of respect (which is not insignificant); 5). alienating a substantial portion of reporters in order to gain ill-defined benefits by having PIOs be eligible for officer positions seems like a poor trade-off (in my opinion, which I know lots of folks disagree with).

In other words, as noted above, I’m conflicted about this. As anyone who knows me would attest, I have opinions, so finding myself going back and forth on an issue like this one is unusual for me. In short: blargh.

Because, here’s the deal: I’m a PIO. I like being a PIO. I respect myself and the work that I do. I think it’s a noble and legitimate gig. I also used to be a full-time reporter. I liked being a reporter. I respected myself and respect the work that I did. I think it’s a noble and legitimate gig. I also have no illusions whatsoever about the fact that they are fundamentally different jobs. As a PIO, I write about the institution that employs me. That’s a conflict of interest that would be untenable as a journalist.

So, anyway, just throwing that out there. Now, on to the reason I decided to write this post in the first place, potentially opening the door to harsh criticism from both sides.

I Have Questions

The NASW constitution’s language states that “A substantial majority of an officer’s science-writing activities shall be journalism” and that “Officers may not write press releases or otherwise act on behalf of an institution or company to affect media coverage while they serve in office.” And I’m not entirely clear on what that means.

For starters, what does a “substantial majority” mean? 51 percent of an individual’s work over the course of their term? 60 percent? 75?

Do books count as journalism? I.e., if the bulk of a writer’s work is for a book or books, does that count as journalism? What if a person is a staff reporter when they get elected and then they decide to take time off to write a book, do they have to step down as an officer?

What if an officer gets laid off from a staff position, or a favored freelance outlet dries up, and they decide to write a book instead? Does that count?

What if the person’s a freelancer and ends up writing features for a university magazine? Does that count as work that violates the constitutional language? What about writing for other institutional outlets, like (the now defunct) HHMI Bulletin (which I loved)? What about outlets like MIT Technology Review, a very good news outlet that works hard to maintain its editorial independence, but is still, at the end of the day, owned by the university whose name is in the title? Is writing for an outlet like that fundamentally acting “on behalf of an institution or company to affect media coverage”?

I guess I’m just not clear on where the line is for what separates the constitutionally acceptable candidates from the unacceptable candidates, particularly given that I know many reporters who publish in widely-respected news outlets but that have also written for universities and other institutions. They have, to the best of my knowledge, been scrupulous in avoiding conflicts of interest. But I’m not sure how to tell which of them would pass muster as a potential officer. Are there any clearly defined guidelines for implementing the existing language? Or is it based on a Potter Stewart-esque “I know it when I see it” sort of thing?

Again, I’m not being snarky. I’m not trying to be difficult. I just want to understand this aspect of things, because it seems like it would be important in helping to place the proposed amendment into context. At least for me.

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2 thoughts on “Some Questions and Thoughts on the NASW Officer Debate

  1. So, several folks have asked me why I wouldn’t consider books as journalism. Here’s my answer: It’s not that I don’t think of books as journalism, it’s that I’d just never thought about whether they were or not before. It simply never occurred to me one way or the other. I have no formal journalism training, it was all on the job, so I don’t know if this is something they cover in journalism classes? (Ask me how I got hired as a reporter sometime. It’s atypical.) I never really thought about journalism in any context other than newspapers/magazines, and their audio/video/online equivalents. That’s why I was asking the question: I honestly didn’t know. I certainly wasn’t intending to disrespect the work of nonfiction authors.

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  2. I don’t know that I have anything useful to add to this discussion other than “yet another thing made complicated by the internet when everyone is a content generator and career paths are much more fluid”. (I’ve been thinking of joining the NASW as it’s where my career is drifting, I hope).

    I think books can be works of journalism though like you I’ve never really thought about it. But they are deep dives uncovering stories on a single topic, so in that sense, are journalistic.

    But this gets into whether telling stories of science is reporting or advocacy …another big issue in science journalism, I know.

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