Archive for October, 2011


Remembering Edward R. Murrow

Recently I had the pleasure of attending the annual Edward R. Murrow Awards banquet that our friends at the Radio Television Digital News Association held in New York City.

My friend and SPJ colleague Barbara Reed took me along on the tickets she won this year at our Legal Defense Fund auction.

It was a glittering event at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan, right next to Grand Central Station on 42nd Street.

I caught up with some old friends who were broadcasters in Colorado, and there were a lot of bold-faced names in the audience, people you’d recognize the minute you saw or heard them. It was a great night. Our colleagues at RTDNA are not only excellent convention partners, but they know how to put on a good show when it comes to their awards banquet.

I mentioned to my counterpart, RTDNA chairman Kevin Benz, what a great logo they have for their awards program. It’s a poster of Murrow in a white shirt, sitting at an angle, his tie a bit loose, staring intently into the camera.

I’ve been a huge fan of Murrow all my professional life. I’m not old enough to remember any of his broadcasts, but I’ve read a biography, listened to the old audiotapes and seen excerpts of his CBS Reports and See It Now programs. He’s one of my heroes.

So it was interesting when I read a post last month on the RTDNA website by a University of Delaware journalism professor, who wrote about her experience playing some of Murrow’s WWII broadcasts from London to her introductory journalism class.

What she discovered to her dismay was that many of her students were unimpressed. He was monotonous, they said. Why didn’t he show any emotion? Why didn’t he seem to care?

OK. So a journalist risked his life standing on a London rooftop to bring the sound of the Battle for Britain into radios and living rooms across the Atlantic in a way that had never been done and he’s not EMOTING ENOUGH for you? C’mon. Get real!

However, the students’  reaction did make me realize how much our profession has changed between generations — and in ways that are not always for the best.

Call me old-school, but the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, fact and opinion, observation and emotion, are not helpful trends in our business.

I say that mindful of the fact that Murrow basically re-invented and pioneered much of what we take for granted today in broadcast journalism. He smashed a lot of the old stodgy ways of doing news and radio commentary.

If he were around today as a 20-something journalism graduate, I suspect he would be on the cutting edge of re-inventing our business again for a digital era, much as those journalism students will do, I hope.

I just hope they don’t feel the need to choke up or cry on camera, and that they remember bearing witness to history still trumps expressing one’s emotional life.

 

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Pushing back against the journalism brain drain

The email from Mr. Anonymous arrived in my mailbox one recent morning.

He wanted me to look into overcrowding in one of the local high schools where some classes had as many as 40 kids, he claimed.

“PLEASE INVESTIGATE THIS as you are our only hope,” the anonymous tipster wrote. “YOU CAN HELP OUR STUDENTS. PLEASE DO SO.”

The story will get done. But the email and its plaintive plea made me wonder: What would happen if I was not covering this inner city school district?

I don’t have a lot of competitors on my beat. Sadly, with the cutbacks that newspapers have been forced to make in recent years, there are many school districts and city halls that are not getting the attention we once paid to them.

Later that same morning, other emails followed with news of more layoffs of fellow journalists in Los Angeles, St. Louis and Dallas. It would appear that the cuts that have decimated our industry in recent years are far from over.

I can relate closely to the situation of my colleagues who lost their jobs, having been in that position myself when the Rocky Mountain News closed in February 2009.

As troubling as the numbers are for our industry, there is a secondary kind of loss under way.

Within SPJ’s ranks in recent months, we’ve seen some of the best and brightest people leave the field of journalism for jobs outside the profession.

I think of former SPJ President Clint Brewer, one of my role models, who has taken a job with the state of Tennessee.

I think of Darcie Lunsford, formerly the president-elect, who has taken her bright personality and considerable skills into the Florida real estate business.

I think of Ian Marquand – the heart and soul of our Montana chapter – who also has taken a job in state government.

These are all bright people who have taken a new path on which I am sure they will excel. I’m sure we all wish them well.

All three have committed to staying with SPJ and helping out wherever they can, and I’m sure they will.

But it does make me wonder: What’s to become of our profession and our organization if we keep losing such bright minds and strong leaders?

Well, here’s one thing I believe we can and should do. There are plenty of bright and talented people in our business, many of them just starting out in their careers.

And there are others whom I’ve admired for years who for one reason or another have never joined SPJ.

We need to start reaching out to those folks and bring them into SPJ. We need to replenish our ranks with people like Clint and Darcie and Ian who can and will make a difference.

Here’s what I’m going to do: I’ve been compiling a list of 100 people who fit this description. Over the next 100 days, I’ll be writing a series of letters asking them to join SPJ.

Here’s what I’m asking you to do. Think of three people in your own world who you think would make excellent SPJ members and perhaps even leaders.

Call them. Email them. Write them. Ask them to join. (Here are few good reasons to join.) If you think a phone call from the SPJ president will help, email me their names and numbers. I’ll be happy to make those calls.

Let’s find these folks and make SPJ as strong in the service of journalism this year as it has been since 1909.

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National Practitioner Data Bank restricted: How you can help

Imagine, God forbid, that you were to undergo brain surgery in the near future.

Wouldn’t you want to know if your surgeon had been a defendant in multiple malpractice lawsuits in more than one state?

Of course you would. And thanks to some intrepid reporters who dug through public records, readers in several U.S. cities were able to make informed decisions as to their choice of physician.

But that kind of skillful reporting – the sort of work journalists should be doing in every city – is at risk today because of the federal government’s recent decision to retract and disable a valuable public use file of a national data bank.

The National Practitioner Data Bank is a confidential system that the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration uses to track malpractice settlements and disciplinary actions against doctors and other health care professionals.

For years, the HRSA also has made available a public file in which the identities of the providers were scrubbed but the data on the malpractice outcomes and disciplinary cases were available.

By comparing the anonymous data in the public file against other existing public records, reporters in Minnesota, Kansas, North Carolina, Missouri and Virginia have been able to report stories exposing serious gaps in the monitoring of these cases.

The Association of Health Care Journalists has tracked this issue closely and has some examples of these stories plus comments from reporters on how they used the data bank’s public file.

Evidently, these stories have produced a backlash from those who would prefer the public be kept in the dark on such matters. On Sept. 1, the HRSA shut down the public use file of the data bank that previously had been posted on its website.

It gets worse.

The agency also sent a letter to Kansas City Star reporter Alan Bavley, threatening him with an $11,000 civil fine if his paper published a story that used confidential information from the data bank.

The Star – rightfully – went ahead and published the story based upon Bavley’s use of the public portion of the data bank’s public file and other available public documents.

The threatened fine is particularly galling. When I travelled to Cambodia to train journalists there a few years ago, one of the more outrageous tactics of the country’s regime was to levy huge fines on journalists who wrote things the government did not like.

My Cambodian friends – who admire and view our First Amendment protections as a model of the way a free press ought to be – would be dismayed to read of a U.S. official here “going Cambodian” on a journalist whose work was based upon public records.

SPJ joined other journalism groups – led by AHCJ – to protest this expansion of secrecy regarding the data bank and express concern about the threatened fine.

So far, our protest has not resulted in the restoration of the data bank’s public use file.

In a Sept. 21 letter, an HRSA official informed us that the agency is “reconfiguring” its formerly public file to make it more difficult for anyone to use the data to identify any health care practitioner.

As the Simon and Garfunkel song goes, “Hello, darkness, my old friend.”

But there is hope. Our campaign has found some interesting allies.

One is a former HRSA administrator whose job formerly included  overseeing the data bank’s public use file.

Robert Oshel was an associate director at HRSA, where he worked from 1987 until his retirement in 2008. Among his duties was to design the data bank’s public use file and oversee its quarterly updates.

In a letter to AHCJ, Oshel wrote that the current administration, “in erroneously interpreting the law,” took the data bank’s public file offline.

Our fight also drew support last week from U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who wrote a letter to HRSA officials criticizing the removal of the public use file of the data bank.

“Shutting down public access to the data bank undermines the critical mission of identifying inefficiencies within our health care system – particularly at the expense of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries,” Grassley wrote. “More transparency serves the public interest.”

Where this dispute is heading is hard to say. What is clear is that AHCJ, SPJ and our other journalism colleagues will keep up the pressure to restore the data bank’s public use file.

What can you do? Well, for starters HRSA has scheduled a conference call to discuss the data bank’s public use at 1 p.m., Thurs., Oct. 13. Here’s a link to the conference call info.

Here also is a timeline on this issue.

Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Heath Care Journalists, has asked that as many journalists as possible dial into the conference. I intend to do so. I hope you will, too.

 

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On “illegal alien/immigrant”

I have to admit to being skeptical last year when controversy broke out over Leo Laurence’s column in SPJ’s Quill magazine on use of the phrase “illegal immigrant.”

I’ve certainly used it many times over the last decade in keeping with guidelines spelled out in the Associated Press Stylebook.

Here’s what the AP Stylebook (2006 edition) has to say about the term: “Illegal Immigrant – Used to describe those who have entered the country illegally. It is the preferred term rather than illegal alien or undocumented worker.”

Sometimes I’ve also used the term “undocumented immigrant.” While looking back at stories written by my colleagues, I found plenty of instances where both terms were used in immigration-related stories.

Less common was use of the term “illegal alien.” Webster’s Dictionary still includes the secondary definition of alien as “a foreign-born resident who has not been naturalized and is still a subject or citizen of a foreign country.”

But that usage seems antique now. Science fiction movies and television programs like “The X-Files” have rendered the more common use of the word to refer to an extra-terrestrial — the third meaning listed in Webster’s.

So when the issue came up last week at the SPJ convention in the form of a resolution, I still wasn’t entirely convinced of the need to question use of the term “illegal immigrant.”

Others who shared my skepticism questioned the resolution’s wording.

Then Rebecca Aguilar got up to speak.

Rebecca is a member of SPJ’s Fort Worth Pro chapter. She attended the convention this year as one of six diversity fellows, a program that has been a valuable asset to the Society by ensuring that underrepresented voices are heard in debates like this one.

After receiving permission to speak as a non-delegate, Rebecca told voting delegates how she is the daughter of undocumented immigrants.

She talked about how her mother reads the Toledo Blade* every day and later became a U.S. citizen. Her mother believes in the work that journalists like her daughter do and its importance to society, Rebecca said.

But it pains her mom whenever she sees the term “illegal alien” in the newspaper.

“Every time you use the words ‘illegal alien,’ you insult my mother,” Rebecca told the delegates. “‘Alien’ is an ugly word.”

You could feel the whole debate start to shift as she sat down. I know I was moved. A short time later, the delegates approved the resolution by a resounding voice vote.

My gripe with the term “illegal immigrant” is not the phrase itself, but with the loose and imprecise way that it is applied.

I’ve had the experience of covering large scale immigration arrests at a meat packing plant or vehicle accidents where large numbers of people are arrested.

It’s not uncommon, however, for authorities to release several people the next day after determining that indeed they had papers. To call these people “illegal” is sloppy and inaccurate.

My concern is not one of being politically correct as it being precise and accurate.

When police arrest someone on a burglary charge, we don’t refer to them the next day as “illegal burglars.” They are burglary suspects.

I don’t see why we can’t treat immigration cases like any other arrests. A person under arrest is suspected of entering the country illegally until authorities are in fact sure that they did.

It’s worth noting that while the resolution (full wording below) urges journalists to stop using the term “illegal alien,” it stopped short of asking them not to use the term “illegal immigrant.”

Instead, it simply encourages “continuous discussion and re-evaluation of the use of ‘illegal immigrant’ in news stories.”

That seems like a healthy idea to me.

I’m curious about what you think. Please take a moment to respond to the poll at the end of this column.

Here is the resolution approved at the convention:

WHEREAS, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics urges all journalists to be “honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information” and;

WHEREAS, mainstream news reports are increasingly using the politically charged phrase “illegal immigrant” and the more offensive and bureaucratic “illegal alien” to describe undocumented immigrants, particularly Latinos and;

WHEREAS, a fundamental principle embedded in our U.S. Constitution is that everyone (including non-citizens) is considered innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law and;

WHEREAS, this constitutional doctrine, often described as “innocent-until-proven-guilty,” applies not just to U.S. Citizens but to everyone in the United States and;

WHEREAS, only the court system, not reporters and editors, can decide when a person has committed an illegal act and;

WHEREAS, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists is also concerned with the increasing use of pejorative and potentially inaccurate terms to describe the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States;

THEREFORE, be it resolved that the Society of Professional Journalists convention of delegates: urges journalists and style guide editors to stop the use of illegal alien and encourage continuous discussion and re-evaluation of the use of illegal immigrant in news stories.

* In fairness to the Blade, the term “illegal immigrant” is used far more often that “illegal alien” judging by a search of the paper’s website, although examples of both can be found.

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