Opposing a bylaws change at the National Association of Science Writers

An organization that professes journalism principles should be led by journalists

On Oct. 13, the members of the National Association of Science Writers — an organization of staff and freelance journalists, science communicators, and public information and media relations professionals — will vote on a proposed change to its bylaws that will allow those who pitch stories to journalists to become organization officers and serve as its public face. Below is a letter signed by 87 journalist members opposing this change. We’ve placed it here for ease of access. If you are a journalist and NASW member and would like to add your name to this letter, please fill out this Google Form.

Dear colleagues,

The National Association of Science Writers has been a shelter for us all — freelance and staff, editors and writers — an organization that represented our shared interests to the world, helped us understand what made for good journalism, and provided career guidance and companionship. So it saddens us to realize that the ongoing efforts to rewrite NASW’s rules threaten to put an end to all that.

In the run-up to the coming vote on the eligibility of PIOs to hold officer positions, there has been acrimonious debate over whether passing the amendment will put journalist members in a situation presenting a conflict of interest. As journalist members of NASW, staff and freelance, we believe passing the amendment will do exactly that. We are writing this letter to specify how it will do that, and thus to explain why all of us will vote against the amendment, and why some of us will leave the organization if the amendment passes.

The principles by which journalists live their professional lives are specific and unforgiving. They are codified by the Society of Professional Journalists as “seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent.” In seeking the truth, our chief responsibility is to owe no obligation to any entity or person who has gathered or provided any of the information we report — to act “without fear or favor,” as The New York Times once bannered.

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.

Professional journalists are no more or less ethical, as a group, than communications professionals. Communications professionals are no more or less ethical, as a group, than journalists. But our ethics are different. It is a blurring of lines to insist they are the same. There might have been a time, earlier in the public understanding of science and the public life of the United States, when those two sets of responsibilities were more tightly aligned. This is no longer the case. 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.

While NASW has always accepted members from journalism, science writing and science advocacy, it has always founded its public advocacy for freedom of speech and of the press on journalistic principles. We believe that if NASW accepts PIOs and house science writers as officers, this advocacy will be rendered toothless. We don’t believe that disclosures or recusals on the part of officers can address that problem.

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. We seek a strong organization that supports its members in that income struggle. We believe that a strong organization can best stand for journalistic principles by having its officer positions filled by journalists who are professionally obligated to embody those principles.

We’re dismayed, of course, at the turn that arguments over the proposed amendment to NASW’s constitution have taken. But this letter isn’t an appeal for comity or civility. The moment for that passed when vociferous advocates for the change cast themselves as an oppressed class while co-opting the language of the #metoo and anti-apartheid movements.

We seek an organization that is not merely an advocate “for science,” but that applies journalistic standards to conveying information about science. Plenty of organizations thrive with other principles. But if the supporters of the proposed amendment want an organization that doesn’t adhere to journalistic principles, they’re going to get an organization that doesn’t have journalists in it.

We ask you, our fellow NASW members, to vote No on this amendment. If it passes, some of us will be constrained by our employers to leave the organization; others have made that decision independently, and still others among us are contemplating our place in an organization that will be rendered fundamentally different if the amendment is passed. We have valued our memberships and our relationships, including warm friendships and collegial interactions with our PIO counterparts. But the campaign for the amendment’s passage has made this an NASW that makes journalist members feel unwelcome. The amendment’s passing will make us feel that even more.

Signed,

  1. Emily Anthes, freelance
  2. Christie Aschwanden, lead science writer at FiveThirtyEight
  3. Monya Baker, Nature
  4. Adam Becker, freelance
  5. Laura Beil, freelance
  6. Rebecca Boyle, freelance
  7. Peter Brannen, freelance
  8. Bethany Brookshire, staff writer, Science News for Students
  9. Rachel Courtland, Nature
  10. David Dobbs, freelance
  11. Ann Finkbeiner, freelance
  12. Katharine Gammon, freelance
  13. Liza Gross, freelance; and magazine editor, PLOS Biology
  14. Tara Haelle, freelance
  15. Shannon Hall, freelance
  16. Eric Hand, Science
  17. Richard Harris, NPR (former president, NASW)
  18. Tina Hesman Saey, senior writer, Science News
  19. Jennifer Holland, freelance
  20. Virginia Hughes, Buzzfeed News (*already did not renew)
  21. Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior reporter, FiveThirtyEight
  22. Liz Kruesi, freelance
  23. Jane J. Lee, News editor, Americas, Nature
  24. Brendan Maher, features editor at Nature
  25. Apoorva Mandavilli, Spectrum
  26. Betsy Mason, freelance
  27. Amy Maxmen, senior reporter, Nature (*already did not renew)
  28. Maryn McKenna, freelance
  29. Rich Monastersky, Nature
  30. Lauren Morello, bureau chief, Americas, Nature
  31. Michael Moyer, Quanta
  32. Katie Palmer, John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford
  33. Jeffrey Perkel, technology editor, Nature
  34. Jennifer Ouellette, senior reporter, Ars Technica
  35. Paul Raeburn, freelance
  36. Sara Reardon, Nature
  37. Adam Rogers, Wired
  38. Erin Ross, Oregon Public Broadcasting
  39. Sarah Scoles, freelance
  40. Ramin A. Skibba, freelance
  41. Shannon Stirone, freelance
  42. Nola Taylor Redd, freelance
  43. Erik Vance, freelance
  44. Emily J. Willingham (NASW board member, signing in a personal capacity)
  45. Cassandra Willyard, freelance
  46. Carl Zimmer, freelance
  47. Rhitu Chatterjee, correspondent, NPR
  48. Tim de Chant, senior digital editor, NOVA
  49. Carolyn Crist, freelance
  50. Michelle Nijhuis, freelance
  51. Sandra Blakeslee, freelance
  52. Paul Voosen, Science
  53. Jessica Wapner, freelance
  54. William Schulz, freelance
  55. Joshua Sokol, freelance
  56. Liz Scherer, freelance
  57. Lauren Gravitz, freelance
  58. Eric Niiler, freelance
  59. Zachary Zorich, freelance
  60. Charlotte Huff, freelance
  61. Cheryl Katz, freelance
  62. Seth Mnookin (NASW board member, signing in a personal capacity)
  63. Charlie Petit, freelance
  64. Rachel Nuwer, freelance
  65. Jenny Morber, freelance
  66. David L. Levine, freelance
  67. Doug Fox, freelance
  68. Emily Sohn, freelance
  69. Dan Fagin, NYU professor, author, freelance
  70. Jason Goldman, freelance
  71. Alexandra Taylor, Chemical & Engineering News
  72. Maia Szalavitz, freelance
  73. Charles Seife, NYU professor, author, freelance
  74. Ceri Perkins, Spectrum
  75. Esther Landhuis, freelance
  76. Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal (former president, NASW)
  77. Kristin Ozelli, Spectrum
  78. David Wolman, freelance
  79. Philip Yam (NASW board member, signing in a personal capacity)
  80. Alla Katnelson, freelance
  81. Tim Requarth, NYU lecturer and freelance
  82. Pamela Ronald, UC Davis professor and freelance
  83. Michael Reilly, MIT Technology Review
  84. Emily Mullin, freelance
  85. Beth Skwarecki, Lifehacker
  86. Hannah Furfaro, Spectrum
  87. Robin Marantz Henig, freelance