The French association of science journalists (AJSPI) does accept only journalists. In the view of its president Yves Sciama professional associations for journalists and communicators should be separate because their professions differ: A journalist works for the public and the truth, a communicator for an institution. He thinks blurring the two fields is a deadly peril.
Par Yves Sciama, président de l’AJSPI
Should science journalist associations accept communicators among their members, or even within their boards, and if so, with what rights? These questions have sparked lively and sometimes tense debates within science journalist associations worldwide for the last two or three decades. And for an obvious reason: in that period, traditional media have rapidly declined, while simultaneously the communication departments of both academic and private science-producing institutions, including corporations, have grown dramatically. In that process they have “swallowed” a significant number of former journalists, including members of our associations.
I will briefly explain the guiding principles of the French association (AJSPI) on this issue; then I will describe its practice and end with a few personal thoughts.
Our association believes that independent journalism is an essential component of a functioning democracy, and that our mission is both to represent and defend science journalism- and not science communication, which obviously does not need to be defended. The exact limits of journalism can be endlessly debated, but let us say for the sake of simplicity that a journalist’s ultimate loyalty is to the public and the truth, while a communicator’s is to his/her institution. And of course any science-producing institution has its own interests and agenda, which inevitably conflict with the truth sometimes. So science journalism and communication should be seen as opposites more than as two facets of the same trade. A communicator will hype the research, a journalist will examine it.
One of the sources of confusion is that science journalism and science communication partly rely on the same skills. So people often transition from one profession to the other, and many universities teach both professions in the same classes. But in our view, technical and writing skills are not the main issue: these two professions have different goals, and therefore imply a different and sometimes antagonistic mindset.
A (slightly provocative) comparison would be to say that a solid knowledge of the law, combined with a good training in firearms, are skills necessary to both police officers and security guards (and indeed to gangsters!). But that does not mean these professions are the same, or justify that associations of police officers should include security personnel. Of course I am not saying that police officers (or journalists) are intrinsically better people than their counterparts in the private sector – actually, some of them are lazy or even corrupt – but their professional associations should be separate because their professions differ.
Now about AJSPI. In a way, we have been lucky: AJSPI was founded as a “journalists-only” association in 1955, and my predecessors, rather than accepting science communicators, have created a separate “club” for interested press officers. The members of this club can participate in some of our activities, meet us and support us, but do not belong to the association. So we have not had to deal with the issue of “ordinary” and “extraordinary” members. Nor have we had to manage that moment, often seen elsewhere, when the extraordinary members outnumber the ordinary members, and then ask for voting and leadership rights…
Our choice of being “journalists-only” has never been questioned by our members. However, the journalism crisis has struck us too, and has raised the question of the borders of our association. We mostly struggle with what to do with freelancers – as staffers of traditional media obviously have the full right to be members, while we have always rejected people who work fulltime for scientific institutions.
Freelancers now represent 50% of our association, which has 270 members. (We have approximately 35% staffers, and circa 15% authors of books, documentaries etc.) The choice we have made is to accept freelancers in the association if over half of their income comes from journalism – including film-making, book-writing etc.
This we feel is an acceptable and pragmatic compromise: On the one hand it takes into account the difficulties of many journalists, by accepting that they sometimes may need to complement their income with communication, and on the other hand it reaffirms that journalists should stay as independent as possible from their sources (i.e. science-producing institutions).
As any compromise, it is of course imperfect. Someone who receives any significant percentage of his/her income from an institution obviously develops some form of loyalty to it, and therefore loses some independence. On the other hand, people with a really independent journalistic mindset may in some particular situation find it necessary to accept a communication job, and asking them to leave the association can be a loss for journalism.
But on the whole, I think pragmatically applying these rules, which people know and accept, has worked for us. Setting limits has not created any tension within the association: it has happened several times that people (even board members) have spontaneously resigned from the association after accepting a mission for an institution. Some have come back to us later, as their professional situation has changed again, and this has (until now at least) always been a peaceful process.
When we implement these rules, we try to be both principled and pragmatic. Every new applicant sends the board of AJSPI a CV and a letter, and must provide the names of two association members who know his/her work and can testify that it is predominantly journalism. When nobody knows the candidate, we meet and discuss his/her work to check that everything is okay. The situation is not as clear for members who have entered the association as journalists but whose situation has evolved. Basically, we rely on their good faith, we try not to be rigid, and we do not “inspect” anyone. To be fully honest, it is likely that a very small minority of our members no longer meets our criteria. But the most important is to make our principles clear – and we are very strict concerning our board and our presidents.
A few thoughts to conclude. More and more often, I receive professional emails signed “XY, press officer and science journalist”. And I realize some young people actually write these signatures in good faith, because that’s how far the blurring process between journalism and communication has advanced. This blurring is a deadly peril, which our associations should resist. If people don’t understand/believe that journalism differs from communication, they will completely stop paying for journalism and it will kill our profession. They will also believe anything the people they trust politically tell them, and it will kill democracy.
To sum up, my belief is that associations that wish to defend journalism should separate journalists and communicators. When for various reasons (including historic ones) this is not possible, they should clearly reserve voting rights and leadership positions (especially the presidency) to journalists, for two reasons.
First, as the crisis of traditional media keeps deepening, the gap in resources, income and free time is widening between communicators and journalists. It is much easier for the former to volunteer for associative work (their institutions sometimes encourage them to do so, as they see the benefit for themselves), and to take responsibilities in associations. So unless rules are set to prevent this evolution, associations that mix journalists and communicators will end up being headed and represented by the latter, which will further obscure things for the public.
But, second, reserving voting rights and leadership positions for journalists is also symbolic. It morally rewards those who soldier on as independent reporters, despite the difficulties and temptations. In essence, it is a way of raising the flag of journalism, of verified information and of independent thinking. And in our era of rising disinformation, I believe it is the duty of our associations to never lower this flag.
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