Lines protecting ‘science journalism’ remain blurry

The US National Association of Science Writers (NASW) will continue to exclude members who ‘act on behalf of an institution or company to affect media coverage‘ from leading roles.

A proposed change to the NASW bylaws, which would have scrapped the rule keeping non-journalist members from serving as ‘officers’ (i.e. president, vice-president, treasurer or secretary) of the association, was voted down by members. A similar proposal had been rejected in 2016.

The NASW bylaws stipulate that ‘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.”

Protector

The current bylaws seem an attempt to safeguard NASW’s role as a protector of independent science journalism. They try to do that by drawing lines between ‘science journalists’ and other members, but those line are pretty blurry.

In 1998, NASW dropped separate member categories for ‘journalists’ and ‘PIOs’. Since then its charter describes all regular members as “people who are professional science writers or instructors of science writing. This includes — but is not limited to — journalists, authors, editors, producers, public information officers, and people who write and produce films, museum exhibits, and other material intended to inform the public about science and technology.”

This particular bylaw ended up being a compromise between those aiming to preserve the association’s identity as an organization dedicated to journalism and those seeking a more general role of serving anyone who communicates publicly about science.

NASW was founded in 1934 and formally incorporated in 1955. Its charter says it “shall foster the dissemination of accurate information regarding science and technology through all media normally devoted to informing the public; and shall foster the interpretation of science and its meaning to society, in keeping with the highest standards of journalism. In addition, this organization shall foster and promote the professional interests of science writers.”

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