Monthly Archives: May 2016

A looming rift in science journalism?

On Undark, Aleszu Bajak paints a rather dark picture of the future of the US National Association of Science Writers. Under the headline ‘A Looming Rift in Science Journalism‘, Aleszu describes the debates of a proposed change to the NASW constitution, which would make non-journalists eligible for leadership roles.

Some money quotes:

PIOs and their supporters argue that the hard lines that used to define [the two] professions no longer pertain in the modern era, and that in any case, the number of NASW members who consider themselves journalists alone is vanishing. “You can’t define journalism and you can’t define journalist,” said Karl Bates, the director of research communications at Duke University and long-time NASW member.

“Joe Palca, a science reporter for National Public Radio, was president of NASW between 1999 and 2000, which coincided with another constitutional change — one that allowed PIOs to gain full membership in the organization in the first place. “It used to be that you were a full-fledged member if you were a science journalist and an associate member if you were a public information officer,” Palca explained. Back then, he said, “it was relatively easy to understand who was strictly a journalist and who wasn’t. But times have changed. I no longer consider it to be a professional organization of science journalists like it used to be.”

“The recent report comes amidst a larger debate that’s been roiling the scientific journalism community in recent years. At the heart of that debate is the charge that rigorous coverage of the sciences has devolved into a flabby affair in which reporters more readily minister to the interests of scientists and the institutions they represent than to the needs and interests of ordinary readers.”

Link: Aleszu’s full piece.

US survey echoes global survey on blurring lines

A committee tasked with studying a proposed change to the constitution of the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW) has filed its report. Its major finding might be that most NASW members say they are mixing the roles of ‘journalists’ and ‘public information officers’. Half of those calling themselves ‘journalists’ report (also?) working for non-media organizations.

A survey under 718 NASW members echoes the outcomes of our global survey, which had also made very clear that a large (and possibly growing) number of people who present themselves as ‘journalists’ do (also) work for organizations that have financial interests in the area that they publicly write about.

Some quotes from the report:

“The NASW membership is a heterogeneous group that includes a mix of journalists, public
information officers (PIOs), and many science writers that do not identify as either.”

“718 [NASW members taking part in a survey] answered the question “Which label or labels would you use to identify yourself?” Response options were limited to “Journalist,” “Public information officer or other media relations professional [PIO],” and ”Other.” Respondents could select as many options as they wanted.

  • 416 people (58%) label themselves as “Journalists”. Of these,
    • 278 (67%) label themselves only as journalists.
    • 61 (16%) also self-identify as PIOs
    • 138 (33%) also label themselves as PIOs, “Other,” or both.
  • 120 people (17%) label themselves only as PIOs.
  • 155 people (22%) label themselves only as “Other.”

The NASW committee writes: “The fact that such a large number of NASW members label themselves as “Other” indicates that many members do not think of themselves as either journalists or PIOs.

Many self-identified ‘journalists’ described job duties that did not involve working for independent media organizations: Of journalists (n=416), 50% write/edit for an institution such as a university, research institute or center, scientific society, nonprofit organization, museum, government agency, advocacy organization, or company.”

Vice versa, many PIOs do work for media organizations: “Of PIOs (n=212), 37% write/edit in a journalistic role for print, online, or broadcast media outlets.”

While the precise questions in the NASW survey and the global survey differed in subtle ways, they seem to paint very similar pictures.

Oddly enough, the NASW committee did not conclude from these findings that the question they were asked (‘Should non-journalists be eligible for leading roles in the NASW?’) is moot, since it is not clear at all which members really are ‘journalists’ and which ones are not.

The committee reports having received letters on the proposed changes. “Letterwriters
had varying, and sometimes inaccurate, perceptions of what PIOs do, what
freelance writers/editors do and what constitutes journalism.”

Regrettably, the committee does not specify what it saw as ‘accurate’ perceptions of these roles.

Link: the full report of the NASW Constitutional Review Ad Hoc Committee (pdf).