On his blog Research Explainer, freelancer Dennis Meredith posts a letter he wrote to the board of the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW) regarding the association’s rule that non-journalists cannot serve as its ‘officers’ (president, vice-president, treasurer, or secretary).
His letter tests lines between science journalists and science communicators as drawn in the NASW bylaws, which state: “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.”
“As a [public information officer or PIO] for four decades, I wasn’t eligible to serve as an officer. During that time, I did freelance for such publications as Discover, Popular Science, Air & Space, Science Digest, and newspapers and in-flight magazines.“
“Ten years ago I left my last PIO job, and I now freelance and consult on research communication. So, I need to understand whether my mix of writing and consulting satisfies the requirement that a “substantial majority” of my science-writing activities be journalism.”
“Does the “substantial majority” rule pertain strictly to word count, or would a nonfiction book be considered as the equivalent of one media article? I suspect not, and if the appropriate measure is word count—given that [my book] Explaining Research is 100,000 words—how many words’ worth of news releases may I write and still maintain a substantial majority? Also, is there a “statute of limitations,” such that a book published a given number of years ago could not be considered in the substantial majority measure?”
“Do science fiction novels count as science journalism?“
Meredith received a response from NASW president Robin Marantz Henig, which appears not to be publicly available. In his rebuttal to that response, Meredith added:
“[..] your answer regarding writing news releases implies that writing even one release, not to mention occasional releases, would trigger the requirement that an officer step down. Is that true?”
“Nor does your answer indicate that there is any policy—or indeed any discussion at all—of how to interpret the vague requirement that “A substantial majority of an officer’s science-writing activities shall be journalism.” This is of significant interest to freelancers like me who engage in an eclectic, ever-changing mix of journalistic, quasi-journalistic, and news-release-writing projects to keep our heads above financial water.”
“[..] regarding the journalism requirement for officers, I’d like to explore the issue of what constitutes “journalism” these days. The current rule was written in the last century and reflects an outmoded twentieth-century attitude regarding news releases.“
“Back then, the sole purpose of a news release was to affect media coverage, because that coverage was the only conduit to the public. Today, research news releases posted on services such as EurekAlert! and Newswise are available to the public online globally. In fact, they are posted right along with media stories on such news aggregators as Google News. A recent search revealed more than 25,000 EurekAlert! and 6,000 Newswise releases on Google News. This fact is one reason that there is a case to be made that research news releases are now, indeed, journalism.“
“Certainly, they don’t offer the independent assessment and perspective of a media story. However, many media research stories don’t either, merely describing the research finding.”
“In fact, research news releases may well be superior to news stories in their accuracy. They are usually more detailed, and arguably more accurate than media stories, because in reputable news offices, they are fact-checked by the scientists.”
It does seem that the NASW’s blurry lines are not yet the final words in this story.