Monthly Archives: October 2018

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.”


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.”

Some NASW members attempt to draw firm lines

On, WIRED columnist Mary McKenna and 86 other members of the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW) have published an open letter opposing a (repeated) proposal to make any member of the association eligible for its leading positions.

“An organization that professes journalism principles should be led by journalists,” a subhead says.

The bylaws amendment that would end priority treatment for ‘journalists’ was reintroduced earlier in 2018 after having been voted down in 2016.

Independent, accountable and transparant

In countering the amendment, the signatories to the open letter try to draw firm lines between science journalists and others. For that, they rely in part on the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, calling the principles by which journalists have to live their professional lives ‘specific and unforgiving’: “Seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent.”

For journalists, they write, “[their] chief responsibility is to owe no obligation to any entity or person who has gathered or provided any of the information we report.

The principles by which communications professionals do their work are inevitably different. Whether they are public information officers making statements, media affairs officers handling press inquiries, or university science writers composing narratives for magazines and websites, their chief responsibility is to represent their agency or institution in a positive and comprehensive way.

“[..] our ethics are different. It is a blurring of lines to insist they are the same. [..] Perception is important. Independence is vital. With journalism itself under assault by multiple branches of government, this is more true than it has been in many of our lifetimes.”

‘Not making judgments’

The letter does acknowledge that in the real world lines have become much more blurred.

“Are all these rules always clear? No. Edge cases abound. The economic realities of 21st century journalism force many reporters, especially freelancers, to choose between doing only journalism and taking on advocacy and marketing work. We are not making judgments about how people earn their incomes; but we do assert that even freelancers who do journalism part-time continue to live by journalistic principles.

Link: the open letter in full