Archive for April, 2007

Make some noise for a federal shield!

Get busy, people. Broadcast, blog, write — whatever it takes to draw more public attention to the need for a federal shield law.

Yarmuth, Tatum The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 is scheduled for reintroduction at 1 p.m. (EST), Wednesday. The U.S. House and Senate bills are identical but subject to last-minute changes. SPJ, one of the nation’s most ardent champions of a federal shield law, will keep you updated as new information rolls in.

Some important/interesting things to note:

The bill’s co-sponsors deserve (really, they do) our thanks. The list of sponsors is growing as I write this, but here are a few legislators to whom I tip my hat:

In the U.S. House — Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Howard Coble (R-N.C.) (Coble has made this North Carolina native proud) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) are co-sponsoring the bill. (A fun fact: Yarmuth is an SPJ member — and the Society’s first member to be elected to Congress).

In the Senate, the bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.).

The Newspaper Association of America asked me to flap my trap on your behalf concerning this issue, and here’s what I told them:

    “Some of the greatest investigative stories of our time — many of them pertaining to the actions of our federal government — have relied on the press’ ability to promise sources confidentiality. SPJ commends legislators who support a federal shield law. They clearly understand that anonymous sources often help build a more informed public, which is better able to hold its elected leaders accountable.”

One of the bill’s chief opponents is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Shield supporters have tried to accommodate this group, but the chamber still refuses to support the proposed legislation. Earlier this year, sponsors tried to appease the chamber by adding to the bill exceptions that included the release of significant trade secrets and personal medical or financial information in violation of current law. But the chamber clearly is still not happy.

This is hardly a surprise. Some of the biggest investigative stories of our time have focused on the very bad behavior of business. The corporate elite will do whatever it takes to ferret out a whistleblower (Hewlett-Packard is a poster child for this …). They’ll stop at nothing to unmask employees (past and present) and board members who help to publicly shame them. Ditto for elected officials and government workers who quietly help reporters analyze quarterly reports. Andersen. All of Big Tobacco. Enron. Qwest. Tyco. WorldCom. These are/were among the firms represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Journalists conduct a tremendous amount of groundbreaking, business-focused investigations that make folks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce nervous. But don’t take my word for it. Check out an analysis of business reporting recently published by Gregory Miller, an associate professor at Harvard University’s Business School.

The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 in both the House and Senate has some changes from the previous versions of the bill introduced in Congress. Among them (as explained by Laurie Babinski of Baker & Hostetler, SPJ’s law firm):

  • A change in the standard of evidence that the federal government must show before it is allowed to compel a covered person to provide testimony or produce documents. The previous standard had allowed the government to compel testimony or document production if a court determined by “clear and convincing evidence” that disclosure was necessary under the test set forth in the bill. The new standard has been reduced to a showing by a “preponderance of the evidence.”
  • A change in the standard for how important the information sought must be to the successful completion of the matter in which either testimony or documents are sought. In a compromise with the Chamber of Commerce, the sponsors changed the standard that the information sought must be “critical” to the completion of the matter back to “essential” to fall in line with Department of Justice guidelines.
  • Additional protection for trade secrets and personal medical or financial information. In another compromise with the Chamber, the new version of the bill dictates that a court must determine by a preponderance of the evidence that, in the case that the testimony or document sought could reveal the identity of a source, that the disclosure of the source’s identity is necessary to “prevent imminent and actual harm to national security,” where disclosure is necessary to “prevent imminent death or significant bodily harm,” or where the disclosure is necessary to identify a person who has disclosed a trade secret, health information, or nonpublic personal information of any consumer in violation of the law.
  • A change in the definition of who is covered by the shield law. Earlier this year, we requested that the sponsors broaden the definition of who is covered under the shield law, and they did so by including the words “and information” at our suggestion. As it stands, a “covered person” is defined as a “person engaged in journalism.” Journalism is defined as “the gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing of news and information for dissemination to the public.” This addition expanded coverage to several categories of people we were concerned had been left out, including book authors. While the bill does not explicitly afford protection to bloggers and other forms of new media – a compromise we made several years back – to the extent a court determines that they are engaged in “journalism,” we expect they will be shielded.

SPJ student members to be proud of

Outreach and impact such as this are what make me a proud member of SPJ.

To Whom It May Concern:

Hello, my name is Heidi Greenleaf, and I am the president of the Towson University chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

After the Virginia Tech shootings, our organization came up with the idea to make and sell Virginia Tech-colored ribbons and bracelets. We sold out two nights in a row and raised $380.

One hundred percent of our profits were given to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund.

I would like to recognize the Towson SPJ students for doing such a wonderful job for a great cause.

Heidi Greenleaf
SPJ President, Towson University

Help us help you

I wrote this column in observance of Ethics in Journalism Week. If you’d like to use this copy, feel free. All I ask is that you alert SPJ Communications Director Beth King at

In the public’s eyes, just about the only folks struggling with believability issues more than the Bush administration are journalists. And before the latter can hold the former accountable, they must address more of their own problems.

Journalists largely have themselves to thank for their low public-approval ratings. This week, newsrooms nationwide are observing Ethics in Journalism Week, and they have a sorry state of affairs to consider.

Since the mid-1980s, Americans have been increasingly skeptical of the information they receive from the news media, and no major news outlet has escaped the trend, according to The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Last year, only 19 percent of people surveyed by the Project for Excellence in Journalism said they believed “all or most” of what they read in their daily newspaper, a drop of 10 points in eight years. Another 40 percent believed only “a good deal” of what they read in the paper.

The loss of public trust should come as no surprise. Journalists have been caught making up stories (Jayson Blair, formerly of The New York Times, and others); rushing stories into the public domain (“Al Gore is our next president. No, make that George Bush. No, make that …”); accepting payment from the government in exchange for news coverage (three journalists formerly at El Nuevo Herald in Miami, and others); plagiarizing (too many culprits to name here); and juicing their stories with bias, loaded language and sensational imagery (again, we don’t have enough space to start naming names).

Business agendas are also getting in the way of good journalism. What else would explain an ABC reporter’s “story” about a medical procedure that just happened to play a starring role in the episode of Grey’s Anatomy that aired right before the newscast? What happens to local news coverage when hundreds of reporting positions are cut to satisfy investors’ expectations, or one corporation owns hundreds of news outlets?

Good journalism is at the heart of our democracy. Like it or not, a free press – warts and all – is what creates an informed citizenry that can hold business, government and the institutions that affect our lives accountable. This nation is great because it has a free – albeit noisy and messy – news media.

The easy thing for a cynical public to do is watch passively as journalism reels from its self-inflicted wounds, or bash the news media until they deliver nothing of substance or value.

The media most certainly need to win back the public trust they’ve lost. That trust starts with a commitment to ethical news production, which is, above all, accurate, fair and independent of special interests. Many news organizations publicize their ethics policies online. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code is widely considered the gold standard of the industry and can be found at SPJ members routinely debate journalism ethics online and encourage the general public to join their conversations.

Rather than tune out, readers, listeners and viewers should hold news organizations and the companies that own them accountable for their news coverage and the business decisions that undermine responsible journalism. Write letters, send e-mail, make phone calls or blog. We’ll all be better for it.

Christine Tatum is national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest journalism advocacy organization, and an assistant business editor at The Denver Post.

Answering to some sharp high school students

I spoke Friday to journalism students at St. Francis High School in Louisville, Ky. This private institution bills itself “the school of thought” and has one of the coolest logos: “!” That’s it. “!”

St. Francis also has a small band of students who are considering issues in journalism. Who knows whether any of them actually will make news-gathering a career, but I suspect they’ll always be smart consumers of information.

I answered as many of their questions as time would allow and promised to answer in this forum those I couldn’t get to during class. Here goes … (Because I know these — and other — students will be reading, please share your own answers to these questions.)

Did you ever want to write a piece or cover an issue that you were silenced on by your higher-ups?

Nope. Never. But have I heard of that happening? Yes.

The closest I ever have come to being “silenced” actually had to do more with indifference and nasty internal politics. I doggedly pursued a story about a suburban Chicago mayor whose mortgage was covered by a man whose company had received multimillion-dollar contracts from taxpayers of the mayor’s city. Because of political pooh-pooh (I was considered too junior, and I remember a more senior reporter and editor complaining that I was working off my turf even though I covered that mayor and that city), the paper was sluggish about allowing me to work on the story. I didn’t let up and picked at the project every chance I got. But the story sat on the back burner for a long time — so long that I had time to find a job at a competing news organization. Guess which story was the first I pitched?

The story ran as a banner on page 1A under someone else’s byline (again, I was considered too junior and fairly unknown given that I had been with the company for only a week), but I was compensated for my work.

Should anonymous sources be legitimate, allowed or relied upon?

Yes, yes and yes. Because of anonymous sources, we have uncovered massive government corruption — some of which endangered lives. Because of anonymous sources, we have exposed crooked companies that have polluted air, land and water. Because of anonymous sources, we have put a stop to organized crime; publicly shamed those who have mistreated children, the elderly and the mentally ill. I could go on and on …

However, journalists must take great care when using anonymous sources. We should somehow explain why the source’s identity needs to be protected, and we should do our best to make clear what the source’s motives are for sharing the information. We also should use anonymous sources sparingly.

How far do you think free speech extends?

To the degree someone is willing to be held accountable for what he or she says.

In this country, you can flap your trap about anything, and we should make sure things stay that way. But free speech doesn’t allow someone to skirt responsibility for his or her words or expression.

Oddly, journalists have more limited speech than folks who don’t work in the media. A couple of examples: Our employers often insist that we refrain from posting campaign signs in our yards and pasting such bumperstickers on our cars. We’re discouraged from signing petitions.

As a journalist, what do you think of the situation involving (radio show host) Don Imus? (Perhaps addressing the issue of him as a journalist and what implications it might have on your profession)

Mr. Imus said something incredibly stupid and incredibly offensive. It’s hard to come up with enough ways to criticize his comment. But as I just wrote, we should be free to say whatever we want — and we should be prepared to be held accountable for our speech and expression.

Mr. Imus is a “shock jock,” but he isn’t a journalist — and never has claimed to be. He has interviewed plenty of high-profile legislators, journalists and newsmakers, but that doesn’t make him a journalist any more than it makes David Letterman, Howard Stern or Jay Leno a journalist.

My hope is that plenty of lessons have been learned from this mess. Among them is that it is dangerous to blur the lines between news and entertainment. CBS Radio and MSNBC helped to confuse the two — which is why there’s even been an ounce of debate about whether Imus is a journalist.

I’m also pleased that several notable journalists now realize their appearances on Mr. Imus’ show were problematic. Newsweek has produced what I consider an admirable mea culpa. Newsweek writer Evan Thomas, a regular guest on Imus’ show, told the magazine he sometimes wondered if Imus went too far. “But I rationalized my appearances by pointing to other prominent journalists and politicians who did it, too,” he said. “I was eager to sell books, and I liked being in the in crowd.”

Do you think it’s possible that our generation could witness the extinction (or at least the radical marginalization) of the printed press in a shift to online and electronic media?

Sure, anything is possible. But do I think the news printed on paper is going to be extinct any time soon? Nah. Will it be marginalized? No, it will continue to have significant power. But will the “newspaper” need to be reinvented? Absolutely. I can’t wait to see what’s next and consider the change exciting.

What are the defining characteristics of an “amazing” journalist?”

  • Unrelenting skepticism — particularly of oneself
  • Unrelenting desire to know the truth
  • A commitment to treat everyone with dignity and respect that is recognized by everyone with whom the journalist comes in contact
  • A commitment to conduct journalism consistent with the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code
  • The ability to talk to anyone about anything
  • The ability to love the trade despite the pay
  • The ability to write well (well as in Anna Quindlen and Jonathan Alter well. Well as in David Halberstam well.) because amazing journalism, regardless of medium, is almost always based on great writing.
  • The ability to report even better than you write. You can’t do that great writing unless you’ve done great reporting.

Why did you choose a career in journalism?

It’s never the same day twice. I can ask just about anyone just about anything. Even though I don’t feel as if this is true every day, I’m performing a public service in the grand scheme of things. I’m surrounded by intelligent, witty, humorous, biting, curious and often loudmouthed and irreverent colleagues. I’m surrounded by colleagues who are also highly sensitive, compassionate and caring. I am honored and privileged to be invited into people’s lives — and, when appropriate, to barge in on them. I believe in the old saying that we should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I love the idea that some small thing I have done has made someone else’s life easier. I also love being paid to be informed.

McCaw’s paper sinks even lower

Well, you can tell the Santa Barbara News-Press is hurting in the editing department these days. Check out this lousy headline trumpeting a story that ran Sunday online (and, I presume, in the print edition, too):

“News-Press seeks exam of computer used by ex-editor Roberts containing child porn”

Does that computer contain child porn, or does ex-editor Jerry Roberts contain the kiddie smut?

Did News-Press publisher Wendy McCaw write this headline and the shameful story appearing below it?

Just asking.

The headline is bad, and the reporting appears to be even worse. In a nutshell, the N-P announced a computer Roberts used was riddled with thousands of child-porn images. A firm the paper hired found the disgusting pictures while trying to recover digital files deleted after Roberts and more than a dozen other staffers walked off their jobs because of various ethical breaches.

Prosecutors have concluded it’s impossible to determine who put the images on the machine and when they were put there. Apparently, the paper bought the computer used — and the machine also passed through several hands before it landed on Roberts’ desk.

With that much uncertainty in play, why mention Roberts specifically (word of the “Minimize Harm” directive in SPJ’s ethics code apparently hasn’t reached the N-P)? Certainly, that stupid decision couldn’t have anything to do with the ludicrous $25 million arbitration suit McCaw’s company has filed against Roberts.

The story appeared without a byline (cowards!), and Roberts said he wasn’t asked for comment before it was published. He’s planning to file suit against the paper — and who can blame him?

The massacre and the media

I am horrified by yesterday’s murderous rampage at Virginia Tech University and am deeply saddened for those mourning the loss of loved ones. For those facing recovery, I wish tremendous strength and support.

At times such as these, the news is important — and responsible, ethical news-gathering even more so. It is absolutely imperative for journalists to think carefully about how to relay information about tragedy and crisis. Sure, the media must move quickly, but ethical media also will move with sensitivity and respect for sources, subjects and colleagues. They will strive to “minimize harm,” one of the core tenets of SPJ’s widely respected Code of Ethics — and the theme of Ethics in Journalism Week, which will be observed in newsrooms April 22-28.

As the code states under the “Minimize Harm” directive, journalists should:

  • Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
  • Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
  • Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
  • Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
  • Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
  • Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
  • Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
  • Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

Because I am a journalist, I am paying very close attention to how the media are reporting this tragedy. I am fascinated — even heartened — by the degree to which citizens have aided the reporting process. has posted an extensive collection of photos and video captured by students and university staff wielding mobile phones and Web cams. One student trained a lens through his dorm room’s peephole to capture video of police in action. Another reportedly will collect payment from CNN for his recording of the shots fired on campus.

A university professor shared a photo of ambulances waiting to transport victims.

“I was getting calls from my family and friends around the U.S. and elsewhere who were getting information from CNN,” the professor wrote to the network. “Thank you for your coverage. This is tragic and I’m very concerned about students, faculty and staff who I know work, teach or take classes in this building. We’re still waiting to hear more about who has been injured or killed.”

The widespread use of technology (digital recorders, mobile phones, Web cams, laptops with wi-fi access) is helping to piece together what happened and when it happened. Such information stands to help university and law enforcement officials prevent and respond to similar attacks in the future. That information also stands to help news organizations deliver more accurate information and analysis.

Of course, questions about news coverage of this event already are being launched in cyberspace. Here is the one question I have received most often today (Would love to know how you would answer these. Please add your thoughts.):

Are the people who contributed video, audio and photos to news organizations journalists?

My answer: No, not necessarily. If they consider themselves journalists, then they are journalists. But many people don’t consider themselves journalists just because they witnessed something and shared information (digitally, verbally or otherwise) with a news organization. They’re serving as sources. This is really no different than the witness of a car accident, who tells a reporter what happened. That doesn’t make the witness a journalist for the rest of his or her life. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that in the time the person was observing the car accident, he or she was acting as a journalist.

(Side note: The Collegiate Times, Virginia Tech University’s student newspaper, has done an amazing job of covering the massacre. The timeliness, and professionalism with which these young journalists have presented the news should serve as an example for even the most veteran reporter.)

American Airlines doesn’t fly smart

What a joke American Airlines’ slogans are. “Something special in the air?” “Fly smart?” Hardly. This outfit can barely get off the ground.

Because I have railed on United Airlines for its poor service, it’s only fair that I devote some time to my most recent experience with this carrier. Here are some notes I kept while traveling this past weekend to and from an SPJ conference in Houston.

But first, allow me to give credit where it’s due: online travel-booking agency delivered outstanding service and will receive my business for years to come (unless it screws up to the degree American did — something that should be hard to do).

1. My mobile phone rang Friday morning. It was an automated message from Orbitz, explaining that my flight from Denver to Dallas (where I was to catch a connecting flight to Houston) was delayed an hour.

2. I arrived at Denver International Airport with my infant son and a nanny (my travel companions are another story for a different day). We took with us only carry-on luggage.

3. We arrived at the appropriate gate. My mobile phone rang again. It was Orbitz. Our flight was delayed a second time — and for another half hour. It took 20 minutes for American’s gate agents, standing mere feet away with ready access to a loud speaker, to relay the same information to everyone.

4. My mobile phone rang again. This time, a live voice was on the line. The Orbitz rep had noticed I was traveling with an infant and could see my flight was delayed a third time (again, informing me at least 15 minutes before American agents piped up). The agent said she was worried we wouldn’t make the connecting flight to Houston, and she urged me to press American to put me on another AA flight — or even another carrier. Our conversation went something like this:

Orbitz: “They’re probably telling everyone that this is a weather-related delay, but it’s not. My records show that it’s really about the crew. Ask them about their crew.”

Me: “Yes, weather. That’s what they’ve said.”

Orbitz: “Well, they’re being disingenous. Uh-oh. Uh-oh.”

Me: “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Orbitz: “Your flight from Dallas to Houston has been cancelled. Just happened. And they’ve rebooked you on a flight to another airport. Instead of flying into Hobby, they’ve got you on a plane going into George Bush Airport.”

Me: “I’ve never been to Houston. I wonder how that will affect travel from the airport to my hotel. It’s a Hilton in Clear Lake, one of Houston’s south suburbs.”

Orbitz: “I have a feeling it’s going to be more expensive.”

5. I approached an AA gate agent and asked about the cause of the flight’s delay. A smiley woman explained it was weather-related. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “You’re saying it’s the weather. Why would Orbitz tell me it’s due to a staffing problem?”

Agent (smile disappearing): “Orbitz is right about us not having a crew, but it’s because of bad weather.”

Me: “How so?”

Agent (launching into what amounts to the idiot’s guide to chaos theory): “The crew that will man your flight didn’t get into Denver last night until very late because of bad weather. Federal law requires that they get at least eight hours of rest, and that rest period isn’t up.”

Me: “So, if I understand this corrrectly, weather in another city yesterday is why I’m sitting here today in danger of not reaching my destination?”

Agent: “That’s right. It’s the weather.”

Me (admittedly getting hot under the collar): “No, it’s poor staffing and even poorer planning and management. American Airlines doesn’t have even one extra crew on call in Denver — or anywhere — to keep flight schedules on track? You’ve got no contingency plan.”

Agent: “No, we don’t. Welcome to the airlines industry.”

Me: “I also understand that American Airlines cancelled my flight into Hobby and is sending me through George Bush Airport. I learned that from Orbitz.”

Agent: “Oh, good for them. That’s nice of them to contact you like that.”

Me: “I think that’s going to add expense to my travel. Will the airline pick up the tab for a shuttle from that airport to my hotel?”

Agent: “No, we’re not responsible for weather-related issues.”

I walked back to my seat, wondering how butterflies flapping their wings in the Caribbean at that moment might affect American’s flights on Saturday.

6. We finally boarded and took off for Dallas.

7. We touched down on the Dallas tarmac. Another plane was still sitting at the gate in which we were supposed to arrive. The pilot explained that we needed to wait “five minutes.”

8. Almost 15 minutes passed. The pilot again piped up on the overhead speaker. “I’m sorry about this,” he said. “I’ve been calling for an explanation, and they aren’t getting back to me. I’ll give you another update when I can.”

9. We waited on the tarmac for almost 55 minutes before pulling into the gate.

10. We were told we would depart for Houston from a gate in the airport’s A terminal. Thinking we had plenty of time before boarding our next flight, we headed to the restroom.

8. My mobile phone rang. It was Orbitz, informing me that the departure gate had been changed — to the C terminal, a distance of about 100 miles or so. I went back to the A gate to double-check, and my conversation with an AA agent went something like this:

Me: “I just received a call from Orbitz, explaining that this flight is now scheduled to leave from a gate in the C terminal. Is that correct?”

Agent: “No, it’s leaving from right here.”

Second agent: “Wait a minute. Look at this (pointing to computer screen). There has has been a gate change.”

(Second agent reaches for loud speaker)

“Ladies and gentlemen …”

(Cue chorus of groans)

9. We arrived at the C gate for the connecting flight to Houston, which was delayed because of a staffing problem. The pilot and a few flight attendants were waiting with their bags — but the crew was short one flight attendant, so the plane couldn’t leave. Some passengers, obviously disgusted, offered (loudly) to pick up trash, serve drinks and help everyone off the plane in the event of an emergency. The only people laughing were other passengers.

10. The flight was delayed 15 minutes. Then another 15 minutes. And then 30 minutes more. Make that yet another 30 minutes. Each time, Orbitz informed me at least 10 minutes before American gate agents managed to say anything.

11. Roughly 9:30 p.m.: Thunderstorms rolled in, complete with big bolts of lightning. We couldn’t board. The clock continued to tick. The crew waiting around for the missing flight attendant was about to “time out” (meaning go home) anyway. AA gate agents started to blame the whole mess on “bad weather.” Never mind that if the flight had left on time, the weather wouldn’t have been an issue.

12. A fellow passenger said he lived in Houston and planned to make the drive from Dallas in a rental car. He invited another passenger, the nanny, the surprisingly tranquil infant and me to join him. We did.

Roughly four hours later — 3 a.m. Saturday morning — I checked into my hotel on the south side of Houston. A cabbie later confirmed that if I’d flown into George Bush Airport and trekked to that hotel, the fare would have been in the neighborhood of $80. I had the money to spare — but I wondered how American’s cavalier decision to reroute my trip might have affected many other travelers.

The return flight went more smoothly (we were evacuated from our gate in Dallas only once and for about 10 minutes because of a “security breach”), but it disturbed me to see tired soldiers, hoping to fly stand-by out of Dallas. They were home from Iraq on a two-week leave. “I’ve lost a day waiting around for American to get me on a plane,” one soldier said. “I’m beginning to think it’s because of more than just bad weather.”


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