Recent Attacks Against Journalists Are Attacks Against American Freedoms

In the last several weeks journalists have been pinned against a wall, arrested, assaulted, told to get “back in your cages,” and threatened with gun violence by a sitting state governor.

The key word left out of the sentence above: American.

Those incidents happened to American journalists. American journalists working and doing their jobs in the United States, a country that has a freedom designated for the press.

If you’ve read the headlines or followed the stories on social media, you may have seen the threat of gun violence called a joke, or the event that resulted in an assault charge for a newly elected Congressman, called inappropriate unless the reporter deserved it.

These incidents are not funny and should not be dismissed. The words being spoken are also not funny and they should not be treated as jokes.

These incidents are an attack against the freedoms America was founded on and should be taken seriously.

Most importantly they need to stop. 

In the United States, the First Amendment protects a free press. This includes protecting an individual’s right to ask questions of elected officials without the threat of violence. Journalists should not be arrested or physically harmed for simply trying to do their jobs. Journalists are the eyes and ears of the public. When they are prevented from doing their jobs, the public loses and American freedom is threatened.

The United States, whether data and reality always supports it or not, is often used as an example of a free society by others around the world. This includes evaluating what a free press looks like.

Around the world, we are seeing journalists killed or physically threatened while doing their jobs. These incidents also need to be stopped and should be taken seriously. It is also why it is even more important to push back and stop the incidents happening here.

What we allow to happen on U.S. soil could set the tone for what others experience and do elsewhere, outside our borders.

These recent incidents, that include physical violence, anti-press rhetoric, and legal action are steps away from freedom. They are incidents that should not be happening in a country that was founded on protecting freedom of the press. These incidents threaten American democracy.

Right now, there is undeniable tension between journalists, news organizations, and the public. Polls continue to show the American public’s trust in media is at an all-time low.

While there are examples of reporting and journalists that may have helped contribute to that, we, as Americans, both journalists, and non-journalists, need to work together to stop this threat against our freedom.

Do we want to live in a country where people are not free to ask politicians questions? A country where the information the public receives only comes from those in power? A country where you are not free to publish information people may disagree with?

I know that is not the America I want to live in. It is also not the America people have fought hard, in some cases sacrificing their lives, to protect.

In the name of freedom, let’s stand together.


Memos and Emails to Federal Agency Employees Ban Press Releases, Social Media Posts and “Outward Facing” Documents

Denying agencies from sharing and communicating with the public, even temporarily, denies citizens their rights to access and the ability to hold the government accountable.

The public’s access to its government and its employees is dying.

Tuesday, memos and emails, obtained by a variety of news organizations, show federal agencies are being prohibited from sending press releases, posting on social media and sharing information on blogs.

The agencies involved include the Environmental Protection Agency (link 1, link 2) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It is being described as a temporary media blackout but in reality, it is the public that is being kept in the dark.

The Associated Press is reporting emails sent to EPA staff since President Donald Trump took office, ban employees from “providing updates on social media or to reporters.” According to BuzzFeed News, USDA employees, specifically employees in the Agricultural Research Service department, were told not to release “any public-facing documents” including “news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.”

This is a step away from transparency. This is also a step in the complete opposite direction of what The Society of Professional Journalists and more than 60 other journalism and free press organizations were hoping to discuss with President Trump and his administration when we sent a letter asking for more transparency within government agencies and more direct access to government employees.

The letter, sent to President Trump and his administration less than a week ago, specifically asked for a meeting to discuss three things:

  • the ability of reporters to directly interact with government employees who are subject matter experts, rather than interacting with Public Information Officers (or having all conversations monitored by Public Information Officers);
  • access to the activities of the President;
  • and ensuring that the Federal Freedom of Information Act remains as strong as possible.

Click here to read the letter.

Policies, where federal agencies are barred, even temporarily, from releasing information to the public are unacceptable. These policies prevent the public from knowing what the agencies are spending taxpayer money on. They go against what this country was founded on. They go against our existence as a democracy.

These policies keep the public completely in the dark. They also do not allow journalists to hold the government and its officials accountable.

According to the Washington Post, USDA officials said ARS had not “blacked out public information.” They added, according to the article “that scientific articles published through professional peer-reviewed journals have not been banned.” In a statement, a representative with the ARS told the Washington Post, “as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency, ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public as we strive to find solutions to agricultural problems affecting America.”

It is unclear if these directives came from within the USDA, from Trump himself or from officials overseeing the transition.

What is clear when instituting policies like this is that it shows a complete disregard for the public’s right to know what the government it is doing and it threatens the right of the public to access information through the Federal Freedom of Information Act.

SPJ will not stand by and watch as journalists and the public’s rights are being threatened. Even if temporary, this is a step away from an open and honest government.


SPJ and Journalism Organizations Respond To Election of Donald Trump

Last week, after the election, the Society of Professional Journalists and other journalism organizations released statements reinforcing their commitment to protecting the First Amendment and fighting for the public’s right to know.

Since the election SPJ has seen an increase in donations. Some, when donating, have specifically cited the election outcome.

I want you to know that SPJ is ready to defend the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment and push for government transparency.

We hope that you will continue to join us in this fight. If you have ideas or thoughts or want to help in any way, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me. Also, if you need help donating or renewing your membership, we would gladly help with that as well.

Here is a list of statements made by journalism organizations:

Lynn Walsh is the National President for the Society of Professional Journalists. In her day job she leads the NBC 7 Investigates team in San Diego, California. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for public information. Connect with her on Twitter, @LWalsh.

The World is Watching This Election Day, Report Ethically and Responsibly

"I Voted"

It’s almost here, Election Day 2016.

It seems like journalists and news organizations have been covering this race for years. That’s probably because some have. The length, combined with the twists and turns throughout, have made this is a long and tiresome race to cover as a journalist.

Maybe, like me, you have found yourself getting very cynical about the whole process. Maybe you have found yourself becoming less and less interested in the local issues on your ballot.

Well, let’s all snap out of it.

Last week, while speaking to a group of Society of Professional Journalists members at San Diego State University, I was reminded that covering an election, an event at the core of our democracy, is special. The students, covering their first U.S. Presidential election, were excited, eagerly sharing with me their plans for election night, November 8.

After my conversation with them I was a little annoyed with myself for not feeling the same way. I was also reminded how important our, journalists, coverage of this and every election is for the public, our future and our democracy.

So, yes, some of us have been following candidates across the country, working countless hours, for more than a year. Yes, some of us have been treated poorly and disrespectfully while just trying to do our jobs. And yes, we all have been told the “media” is biased and is rigging the election.

But, despite all of this, our work, our information, our actions, are helping the public make informed decisions about the future of our country. For that we should all be proud.

So, this is a reminder, to stand tall and continue to serve this country like journalists know best: ethically, responsibly, accurately and fairly.

The world is truly watching, let’s show them what professional journalists can do. And if you have not heard it yet: Thank you.

For tips on how to cover the election responsibly, click here and also review the SPJ Code of Ethics.

Lynn Walsh is the National President for the Society of Professional Journalists. In her day job she leads the NBC 7 Investigates team in San Diego, California. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for public information. Connect with her on Twitter, @LWalsh. 


Baltimore Police Email Search Fee Hinders Public Access and Decreases Accountability

Baltimore Police Department

The Baltimore Police Department is charging $50 if a member of the public requests emails from the department, making public access to information and holding government officials more difficult.

MuckRock posted this earlier this week.

According to the policy, outlined in a response to MuckRock, the department says it will charge the $50 email search fee before it will begin to process the request. If the fee is paid, the search begins, a review cost is determined and if the cost and terms are “agreed upon” the $50 fee is deducted from the final cost. Click here or look below to read more about the policy.

While it is a nice gesture for them to deduct the search fee from the total cost, charging just to begin a search threatens the public’s right to information. Emails from public agencies and public employees should be released to the public without prohibitive fees. This information belongs to the public. Members of the public should not have to pay a search fee for it. Charging before the request is even processed is even more prohibitive and threatening to the public’s right to know.

An email to the Baltimore Police Department was not returned. It is also unclear as to when or why this policy was implemented. MuckRock estimates it was sometime in the last two months.

Whatever the reason, the policy is prohibitive and makes requesting emails more difficult for the public. Since the public has a right to this information, there should not be extra steps to jump over or extra fees to be paid in order to obtain it.

Fighting for access to information is something the Society of Professional Journalists takes seriously. If you have been hindered by Baltimore PD’s policy, please let me know: @LWalsh or lwalsh@spj.org

More from the policy:

If you are requesting e-mails correspondence the following is the procedure to request BPD e-mail.

Request for BPD emails are handled by the Information and Technology Section (I T). BPD emails are handled separately from the City of Baltimore emails. BPD emails have a limited retrieval time frame. The cost of in-house retrieval is based on the number of email that must be reviewed before being disclosed. Confidential opinions, deliberations, advice or recommendations from one governmental employee or official to another for the purpose of assisting the latter official in the decision-making function may be withheld. In addition, part of an interagency, or intra-agency letter or memorandum that would not be available by law to a private party in litigation can be withheld.

The BPD can run a word, name or phase through the email retention system. The BPD can run individual email addresses or the entire BPD email system. Once the system identifies the emails with the word, name or phase each email will have to be review to determine what can be disclosed and their relevancy.

The average staff time of review e-mails for release is approximately 150-200 pages reviewed per hour (e-mails and attachments). Time differs depending on the size or complexity of the e-mails. Once all disclosable emails are identified the BPD will advise of the actual cost of producing the e-mails. There is a minimum charge of $50.00 to start the search and downloading of e-mails. After the number of emails is determined you will be provided with the review cost. If the costs and terms are agreed upon emails will be reviewed. The $50.00 search fee will be deducted from the final cost.


Government Employees Don’t Get To Decide Which Journalists Cover Them

A former soccer coach is acquitted in a murder trial. The prosecutor in the case holds a news conference after the verdict. Three journalists covering the trial are excluded.

The dateline for this story isn’t somewhere overseas. It’s unfortunately in our own backyard, in upstate New York.

Last week, St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary Rain barred The Watertown Daily Times reporter William Eckert and photographer Jason Hunter from a news conference after a not guilty verdict in the murder trial of Oral “Nick” Hillary.

Hillary was accused of stalking, strangling and killing 12-year-old Garrett Phillips. The trial has garnered media attention outside of New York, highlighted on national TV programs.

According to The Watertown Daily Times,  Rain excluded Eckert because she said he “‘is a dishonest reporter and I won’t have a dishonest reporter reporting to the community dishonestly.'” (Another journalist, Brit Hanson, was also blocked from the news conference but it has been reported that Rain said that happened in error.)

Click here to read Eckert explain how the events unfolded.

A photo of St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary Rains on the county website.

A photo of St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary Rains on the county website.

This is unacceptable and threatens the right of a free press. If government officials use their power to decide which journalists are granted access to public information, involving the public, on public property, it threatens our rights and freedom to speak freely, gather information freely and publish freely.

This goes beyond granting someone an exclusive or first interview. This was a news conference where only a few people were excluded and they were excluded because of a government leader’s opinion of them and their work.

The government does not get to decide who reports on and covers them. The public should be outraged that a public official is trying to block their right to public information by blocking access to those that may ask critical questions or hold officials accountable. Excluding certain members of the press from interviews and news conferences interferes with the public’s right to know.

I join and support the New York State Associated Press Association, a group of New York newspaper and broadcast journalists, in condemning Rain’s actions.

“…It is inappropriate for you to attempt to control information by giving personal invitations to only certain reporters based on your preference for favorable coverage, or to bar reporters whose coverage you dislike,” the association president Tracy Ormsbee said in the letter.

Click here to read the full letter.

A response from Rain was not immediately received but will be added if it is.

The Watertown Daily Times is protesting and demanding an apology from Rain.


Requesting Public Information Should Not Result in Felony Charges

Fannin-Focus publisher Mark Thomason spoke at the SPJ National Convention in New Orleans on Sept. 20. Outgoing national SPJ president Paul Fletcher (left). Photo by Curt Yeomans, SPJ Georgia board member

Fannin-Focus publisher Mark Thomason spoke at the SPJ National Convention in New Orleans on Sept. 20. Outgoing national SPJ president Paul Fletcher (left). Photo by Curt Yeomans, SPJ Georgia board member

Mark Thomason, publisher of the Fannin Focus newspaper in Blue Ridge, Georgia was arrested June 24 and charged with three felonies, including one for making a false statement on his open records request.

No journalist or member of the public should ever have to put up with what Thomason has when exercising his or her right to public information.

On the day of his arrest Thomason said he had no idea why he was arrested.

“For two days I sat in a jail cell without a pillow or blanket,” he said.

After his release on a $10,000 bond, Thomason said he faced unusual bond restrictions and was required to provide numerous on-the-spot urine samples for law enforcement in his hometown.

When the Georgia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists first heard of Thomason’s arrest, they began sharing their outrage with the public.  The chapter also filed a formal complaint to the Judicial Qualifications Commission against the judge, Brenda Weaver, Chief Superior Court Judge of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit, who had Thomason and his attorney arrested.

At it’s annual convention last month in New Orleans, SPJ’s members commended Thomason’s “relentless pursuit of the public’s right to know” in a freedom of information battle involving the actions of chief superior court judge.

Click here or watch below (jump to the 11 minute, 47 second mark of the video) to hear Thomason’s comments to SPJ members and journalists at the convention.

The SPJ membership also called for Judge Weaver to resign and thanked the SPJ Georgia chapter members for their hard work and due diligence bringing this issue into the public conversation.

What Thomason did, standing up for his right to public information, is something, I hope, no other individual, journalist or news organization has to experience. But, if you do find yourself in a similar situation, I want to know.

SPJ was founded to fight for these very issues. Whether that is your right to government access or recording video on a public sidewalk. We are here for you. Or maybe you find yourself being forced to tell a story or write something in a way that you feel is journalistically unethical. Please tell us, so we can help.

So, please contact me and let us know what we can do to help. We are here to help protect journalism and the public’s right to know.

Lynn Walsh is the current National President for SPJ. In her “day job” she manages and leads the NBC 7 Investigates team in San Diego. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh, or contact her via email: Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.


SPJ Members: Ask Chapter Delegates to Pass SPJ Supporter Bylaws Change

A Guest Post by Lynn Walsh, SPJ President-Elect

EIJ16 is almost a month away. On top of all of training and networking opportunities, SPJ chapter delegates will have an opportunity to vote on two proposed changes to the organizations bylaws.

One of them called “SPJ Supporters,” would help us redefine our Associate membership category to better attract people interested in journalism and protecting the First Amendment, but may not be practicing journalists.

Click here to read a condensed version of this post and the proposed bylaws change.

Journalism is not changing, it has changed.

As the ways in which people consume media change, the people creating it are also changing.

SPJ has always supported journalists through training, legal support, networking and more.

But, we also fight for the public’s right to know through FOIA and freedom of the press. We educate the public and speak out on ethical concerns in the media. And maybe most importantly, SPJ is able to take those fights to lawmakers, advocating on behalf of journalists but also the public.

Right now, our membership is made up almost entirely of journalists or former journalists. We want to see those numbers continue to grow, but journalists are not the only people who care about freedom of the press issues, access to public information and the pieces of work we produce that hold the powerful accountable.

In this day in age there is power in numbers. This is especially true if we want to engage lawmakers.

Just look at the NRA. According to a 2013 figure, the group estimates it has 4.3 million members. Right now, a membership costs $30 for one year. We have all witnesses how powerful the group can be at lobbying, preventing measures its members do not support, pushing through measures its members do support.

While SPJ may never be able to reach those type of membership numbers (a girl can dream, though) there are more people out there than just practicing journalists that care about journalism, freedom of the press, access to public information and holding the powerful accountable.

We want to start being able to better engage those individuals. By passing this bylaws amendment, I think we will be one step closer to making that happen.

People who support journalism and the issues SPJ fights for, defends and stands for can become Supporters. We already have the membership category (it was originally used for individuals working in PR) but now we can redefine it, re-brand it and better serve those who join in this category.

These people could be attorneys who work in FOIA or open records law areas. They might be citizen bloggers or activists who share information and report on issues, but may not consider themselves full-time journalists, therefore not have joined SPJ. Maybe these are just friends and family, general members of the public who have been impacted by a great journalist, who want to support our profession and fight for the public’s right to know.

SPJ Supporters would join at a reduced rate. They would not vote on national elections. They would receive newsletters and updates from SPJ designed for them. More information on how SPJ is fighting to fix FOIA, less information about tips on managing a newsroom or how to get a job in news. (Just an example. More information on this proposed bylaws change can be found here. )

The SPJ National Board members support it and so do I. I hope you will too. If you are not a chapter delegate, please contact your local chapters asking them to support it.

Let’s help bring the possibility of impact and influence back to journalists, the public and SPJ.

Lynn Walsh is the current President-Elect for SPJ. In her “day job” she manages and leads the NBC 7 Investigates team in San Diego. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh, or contact her via email: Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.


The last roundup

Below is my column for the July/August 2016 issue of Quill:

This column for Quill is the last one I will write as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. As I take a look back on the year, I see, with great satisfaction, many accomplishments from the work of many people. Here’s a quick rundown:

MEMBERSHIP. In my induction speech last September, I noted that SPJ leadership hadn’t looked at membership in about 10 years. Virtually every professional association has had issues and declines in membership, especially since the 2008 recession. SPJ was not alone or immune.

We convened two different meetings, one in Arizona in January and the other in New Orleans in April, to brainstorm and determine ways to enhance membership, both for existing and potential members.

Two tracks emerged. The first, to be rolled out this fall, is designed to enlist people interested in fighting for journalism and freedom of information and to help those already doing so.

In tandem with this effort, SPJ President-Elect Lynn Walsh led a task force looking for a way to pull in all people who were interested in backing quality journalism and the causes we fight for. Her group developed the “supporters” of SPJ idea, and you’ll see a proposed bylaws change at EIJ16 to make this a reality. It’s an excellent idea, and a way to expand SPJ’s reach and influence.

The second membership track will be coming next year – it’s an emphasis on how SPJ helps a journalist at every step of his or her professional career.

Tara Puckey, our membership strategist, and Robin Davis Sekula, chair of the Membership Committee, also have been partnering this year on some well-executed and successful membership marketing campaigns.

SPJ GOVERNANCE. I wrote in my recent Quill column about the 41 percent problem: SPJ governs itself as a representative democracy, with all decisions coming from the annual convention.

But the only delegates at convention are those that represent SPJ chapters. We did a data-dive in late 2014 to learn that 41 percent – nearly half – of our membership is not affiliated with a chapter. In other words, they have no voice at convention.

I chaired a task force to study this problem, and possible solutions. When I became president, I asked Alex Tarquinio to continue and finish the work. She and the other task members did a great job in coming up with a proposed change to the SPJ bylaws, which you’ll also see at EIJ16, to establish a system of regional at-large delegates, truly making SPJ a representative democracy.

This summer, the SPJ board considered a proposal to redraw the regional lines and reduce the size of the board. While that effort wasn’t successful, it prompted us to think about a more global look at SPJ governance and the board itself. Region 4 Director Patti Gallagher Newberry will be chairing a task force on governance, starting this summer and continuing into Lynn’s term.

PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICERS. In December, I led a group to the White House, where we spoke with President Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, on behalf of 53 journalism organizations.

The topic: The trend by public information officers at federal agencies to prevent journalists from doing their jobs and getting information to the American people. The problem has gotten worse, not better, under the “most transparent administration in history,” which is what the president called for the day after his inauguration in 2009.

PIOs have become a stifling pinchpoint for information, or in the case where interviews actually are allowed, minders who seek to make sure that the company line is preserved.

Earnest was cordial and the conversation was candid. But we haven’t seen any follow-up as the Obama administration plays out the clock.

I choose to be an optimist on a daily basis, but this problem is only going to get worse. And it doesn’t matter which candidate wins the presidential election in November.

FIX FOIA by 50. Finally, this was a big one. SPJ is a member of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a combine of nine journalist and open-government groups. SGI worked tirelessly on behalf of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, a measure that passed both houses of Congress unanimously. “Fix FOIA by 50” was the mantra, seeking passage of the bill before the 50th anniversary of the act’s initial passage.

The bill brings FOIA into the 21st century; among other reforms, it allows for electronic requests and requires electronic documents to be created. There will be a single online portal to submit FOIA requests to agencies. It establishes, by statute, a presumption of openness in our government.

President Obama signed the bill on June 30, just a few days before July 4, the day President Lyndon Johnson signed the first FOIA in 1966. We fixed FOIA by 50, and we gave America a little something extra to celebrate on Independence Day this year.

Let me close with a couple of thank yous:

To all our professional staff in Indianapolis for the hard work they do for us, and to three people there in particular with whom I have worked closely: To Joe Skeel, for his steady hand as executive director; to Jennifer Royer, our communications strategist who keeps watch on the issues of day and connects SPJ to the media; and to Tara Puckey, who as member strategist is taking the ideas we’ve developed this year and pushing them to reality.

To the other leaders on the ladder with whom I have served over the past three years – Dave Cuillier, Dana Neuts, Lynn Walsh and Rebecca Baker. It has been a real pleasure and honor to work alongside you.

To all the members of the SPJ board. Your service, ideas, passion and hard work on behalf of journalists and journalism are vital.

Above all, thank you for the opportunity to serve as your leader this year.

Despite the many issues in the profession, I can’t think of a better, more fulfilling way to earn a living.

See you in New Orleans!


FOIA reform…next stop, President Obama’s desk

Hurray! The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved the Senate’s Freedom of Information Act reform bill yesterday, sending the bill to President Obama.

A day later, the Society of Professional Journalists and other news media organizations are still celebrating this important step taken by Congress.

Improving and strengthening the FOIA had been the focus of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a group of nine journalism and free-information groups, including SPJ.

We all are strongly urging the president to sign these bipartisan reforms as we approach the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the original FOIA law on July 4, 1966. All signs are saying that he will.

SPJ and more than 50 other journalism and open government organizations have been pushing for a more open and transparent government for quite some time.

Among other improvements, the bill will establish a presumption of openness in the government (usually set by incoming presidents by executive order, but not a statutory requirement) and it will require all federal agencies to establish a single access portal.

FOIA reform is important for not only journalists, but the public as well. An open government is a healthy and robust government. When government leaders and agencies are allowed to keep information secret and hidden, journalists and citizens alike are kept in the dark and the foundations of American democracy fail.

Passage of this important legislation is due to the efforts of many people, but special thanks go to
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md. for their leadership and hard work working on a bipartisan basis, as well as Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chaired the committee in the 113th Congress and introduced the original House bill (H.R. 653).

In the Senate, special thanks are due to two senators — Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy , D-Vt. – for their bipartisan efforts to help make our government more transparent and accountable to the public.


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