Archive for November, 2011


Around the Web: Highlights of SPJ activities

Like many in SPJ, I have Google Alerts set to deliver links to any stories that mention the Society of Professional Journalists. Here are a few of the more interesting items I’ve come across lately.

First, kudos to the Hofstra chapter of SPJ for hosting a very timely program called “Journalists and Police: Why can’t we just get along?”

Here’s a link to a story and video on the program in the Long Island Report.

I liked the fact that the program provoked discussion between journalists and a representative of a local law enforcement agency.

In light of the recent series of arrests and detention of journalists covering “Occupy” demonstrations, I believe this kind of dialog will be helpful to preventing such incidents going forward.

I also found this New York Times column by Michael Powell. What was especially troubling was the detail on how New York City police used press credentials to cull reporters and photographers from the crowd, removing them to a distance where they could not see what was happening.

A tip of the fedora also to the Middle Tennessee SPJ chapter, for being part of a successful effort to obtain release of court files and help shine a light on an interesting case that had called attention to international adoptions. The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has more on the story.

I find there’s a lot to be thankful for in the efforts that individual SPJ chapters are engaged in.

I’m also thankful for some recent good news. For the first time in a long while, our membership numbers are running ahead of last year’s totals.

It’s too soon to call this a trend, but it’s not too soon to do something about it.

Next week, Membership Chairwoman Holly Edgell is organizing an effort to call lapsed members and try to get them to renew. A similar effort proved helpful last year. We call it the Calling Corps.

Holly could always use a few extra volunteers who would be willing to make about five phone calls in this effort. If you would like to help, please contact Holly this week at dateline.belize@gmail.com.

You’ll be making a difference by helping SPJ stay strong so we can continue in the kinds of efforts I’ve highlighted here.

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It was with sadness that I read about the recent death of Robert Estabrook, who joined SPJ in May 1939.

Mr. Estabrook was a former publisher and editor of the Lakeville Journal in Connecticut and a former Washington Post editorial page editor. In 2008, he became part of the Connecticut SPJ Hall of Fame.

Here is a link to a story on the chapter website about his remarkable life and career.

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Staying true to your brand

My brand

I had a great trip to Fort Worth recently to visit our SPJ folks there.

The weekend was in keeping with a long-standing tradition that a newly elected SPJ president’s first trip is to Fort Worth.

They also have a nice tradition of presenting the president with a branding iron with his or her initials. Getting through the airport screening was a bit tricky, but I managed.

The branding iron got me to thinking about the value of having one’s own brand, or as the saying goes, “to thy own self be true.”

For some people in this Internet age, that doesn’t seem to be a value anymore.

Consider the curious case of Mike Winder, the mayor of West Valley City, Utah, who recently admitted to writing a series of “good news” stories about his community under the fake name of “Richard Burwash.”

The mayor wrote several stories for the Deseret News and other outlets. He even went so far as to create a fictitious e-mail account and talk to an editor over the phone under his assumed identity according to a story in the Deseret News.

Let’s leave the mayor’s dual identity for a moment though and consider the Deseret News’ role in this story.

The “Burwash” stories flowed into the paper after the News decided a year ago to lay off a significant number of reporters and turn instead to filling its pages with what some outlets call “user-generated” copy.

Editors at the News claim they had safeguards in place to prevent this kind of hoodwinking.

But the fact remains the mayor/Burwash got away with his deception for more than a year. And according to the paper, editors only became aware of  the mayor’s ruse after he voluntarily told them about it.

What’s troubling to me about this story is how a paper that gave up of having some of its “branded” writers — people who were authentic and accountable for what they wrote —  to other folks for whom such concepts were foreign.

True, journalism has had a few ethically challenged practitioners in recent years. Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass come to mind.

But we’re not taking about them here. I’m talking about hard-working Utah journalists who lost their jobs because of an economic decision, not an ethical lapse.

I’m not against the idea of engaging your audience or fostering citizen journalists and community input. But sometimes, you need a professional journalist. Accept no substitutes.

To me, the incident with the mayor highlights what may be the lasting value of professional journalism, especially in an Internet era where others have taken to hiding behind fake personas or fictitious Twitter and Facebook names.

In the frontier era, a brand had real meaning. It signified who a person was and what belonged to him.

I would argue that in the Internet era, there’s a similar value in being true to your own brand, of being authentic and accountable and ethical.

Being true to yourself has meaning and value that will endure.

That’s my opinion, and this is my brand.

JCE

 

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Thoughts on arrests of journalists simply doing their jobs

We’ve had a flurry of incidents lately where SPJ has objected to the unwarranted arrests of journalists at street protests or crime scenes.

-In September, a television photojournalist in Milwaukee was arrested while filming a crime scene from behind a police tape.

-In October, a reporter from an alternative weekly in Nashville was swept up in a wave of several arrests made at an Occupy Nashville demonstration on a public plaza.

-Also in  October, Milwaukee Police arrested a Journal-Sentinel photographer as she took pictures of an officer arresting students who had marched into the streets off the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.

-On Nov. 1, a photographer for a Richmond, Va. magazine was arrested at an Occupy demonstration.

-On Nov. 6, police in Atlanta arrested two student journalists who were covering an Occupy Atlanta protest.

-And this week, six journalists were detained at Occupy Wall Street in New York City and two at an Occupy demonstration in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The facts and circumstances of these cases vary, but there is one significant common denominator: All the journalists whom police arrested were trying to do their jobs.

I have some empathy for police who are coping with street demonstrations or public protests. My late brother was was a police sergeant in New Jersey. We talked about his job and mine when I was covering the police beat for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver for 12 years.

Both his experience and mine taught me a respect for police officers and the difficult work they do often under chaotic circumstances.

But reporters also often have to work in chaotic situations, which seemed to be the case in three of the four cases cited here. It’s hard enough covering a street demonstration without the added complication of being subject to arrest.

I’ve covered a few riots, and believe me, they are no fun. I’ve been tear gassed, hit in the shoulder by a fist-sized chunk of ice, and dodged a rock. In one instance, a Denver homicide detective came to my rescue when an angry crowd had formed outside a crime scene.

So while I object to seeing journalists handcuffed and arrested, I understand that in a volatile street protest, police are human and mistakes are made.

And as journalists covering these situations, I think it’s important that we adhere to some common sense guidelines.

First off, stay behind the police tape. Police have a right to create a zone in which they can control access to a crime scene. Respect that space.

What’s so aggravating about the first instance is that the cameraman was filming from the public side of the police tape when he was arrested.

Second, wear your credentials. Make it obvious to anyone who sees you that you are part of the working press.

What’s outrageous about the second Milwaukee arrest is that the photographer very clearly was wearing credentials as well as the kind of camera equipment typically used by a photo-journalist.

A police spokeswoman’s subsequent claim that officers did not realize the photographer was a journalist was incredulous at best.

Likewise, a videotape taken by the Nashville reporter clearly captured him telling officers that he was a journalist. They arrested him anyway.

And finally, don’t blur the distinctions between observer and the observed. I know sometimes we like to take the “fly on the wall” approach and not call attention to ourselves. But a street protest is not that kind of situation.

Would any of these steps have prevented any of these arrests? No, because in all these instances the journalists did what they were supposed to do and got arrested anyway.

But taking these steps helps us bolster our case when we protest the arrest of journalists who are simply doing their jobs.

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SPJ committees at work: The year ahead

This post is an expanded version of my forthcoming first column for Quill (for the Nov/Dec issue). Think of this as a roadmap for the year ahead and a lineup of who is doing what.

It’s a bit long, but it will give you a good idea of the scope and breadth of the work SPJ has taken on this year.

The unsung heroes of our Society are the volunteers who log countless hours working on various national committees.

As your new president, I’ve been blessed to inherit a very strong set of committees. I’ve added some people and created some new committees, but for the most part there’s a fair number of folks who agreed to continue on this year.

In my view, committees are working laboratories where SPJ policies are drafted and vetted. I’ve tasked these folks with testing out several new initiatives. Here are brief descriptions of some of the assignments they are working on.

- The Programming Committee, chaired by Jeremy Steele, is a new panel aimed at helping professional and student chapters increase the level of SPJ activities. One project they are working on is to create a “speakers’ bureau” of various experts within SPJ who would be willing to travel at minimal cost to talk to chapters across the country.

As part of the programming committee, Holly Fisher will continue to produce chapter-hosted programs for Studio SPJ.

- The expanded Membership Committee, chaired by Holly Edgell, will be forming a team of volunteers to reach out to lapsed members to encourage them to re-up. The group is also working on coordinating a month-long national membership drive in March 2012. They are also studying the feasibility of creating an institutional membership for news organizations.

-This year Membership also has a new subcommittee chaired by Tara Puckey. This group will focus their efforts on building collegiate membership.

- The Ethics Committee, chaired by Kevin Smith, plans to begin the long and deliberate process of reviewing our Code of Ethics for possible revisions in the light of the challenges posed by a digital age. The committee also hopes to author some position papers on topics such as political coverage, checkbook journalism, plagiarism, etc.

-The Diversity Committee, chaired by Curtis Lawrence, is at work on reviving the Rainbow Source Book, working to strengthen ties with other journalism organizations and partnering with chapters and other journalism groups to monitor content and hiring in media.

- The Freedom of Information Committee, chaired by Linda Petersen, will be working on an encore production of the highly popular “Access Across America Tour” that Secretary-Treasurer Dave Cuillier created two years ago. This year, we’re hoping to have more than one trainer making regional tours to newsrooms and chapters across the nation.

The FOI Committee also is doing an update on prison media access, and for Sunshine Week they will be surveying Washington, D.C.-area reporters on their relationship with federal government PIOs to gain insight into source relationships and the role that public relations professionals play in the free flow of information between government and the media.

- The Government Relations Committee, chaired by Al Cross, will work with SPJ leaders and the FOI Committee to advocate for open government at all levels from localities to Washington, D.C. One special emphasis will be fighting efforts to repeal or curtail public notice advertising by state and local government.

Government Relations also will be working closely with the FOI Committee. Al and Linda will each serve as members of the other committee.

- The Communications Committee, chaired by Lauren Bartlett, is working on a strategic communications plan aimed at creating unified messaging and ideas for key initiatives on our core missions. The committee also is working on a plan to position SPJ national leaders as experts on various media topics.

-Lauren also is chairing a subcommittee whose purpose will be to produce a white paper on where our industry is headed and that will list some innovative best practices by media organizations.

- The International Journalism Committee, chaired by Ricardo Sandoval Palos,  is evaluating what our policy should be when individuals or groups of journalists apply to join SPJ or to start their own chapter, as a group of journalism students in Qatar did two years ago.

- The Awards Committee, chaired by Ginny Frizzi, is weighing whether it would make sense to honor some of our recently deceased SPJ leaders by naming some of our awards after them.

- The Freelance Committee’s special project this year will be to develop a freelancers’ resource guide. Dana Neuts chairs this group.

-The Legal Defense Fund, chaired by Hagit Limor, will continue assisting journalists by funding court battles for their First Amendment rights while working with staff to explore new options for fundraising.

- The Professional Development Committee, chaired by Deb Wenger, will continue producing online tutorials for our members and will try this year to offer some webinars.

-The Journalism Education Committee, chaired by Rebecca Talent,  is looking at ways to support high school journalism programs that are facing elimination because of budget cuts. The committee also is sharing syllabi and best practices with new faculty and encouraging more minority applicants for the Mark of Excellence awards.

- The Digital Media Committee, chaired by Jennifer Peebles, will be working on a special project aimed at creating an interactive digital timeline that will allow visitors to our website to explore SPJ’s rich, 103-year history.

-The GenJ Committee, chaired by Lynn Walsh, is continuing to blog on its excellent site on the SPJ blogs network. They are also trying to come up with a more contemporary and less retro name for the “Liner Notes” blog.

-I have also appointed a special committee, chaired by past president Irwin Gratz, to study whether it’s feasible and desirable to create virtual chapters or affinity groups that would consist of members who share a common professional interest, such as freelancing or a specialty beat like religion or court reporting.

- And last but not least, I’ve asked Mike Koretzky to lead a “Blue Sky” Committee. I’ve asked this group if we had $10,000 or $50,000 or $100,000, how could we best spend it? There’s no money in the budget for this, but let’s first see what this panel recommends.

Will all of these initiatives be adopted? Not necessarily. Where there are policy questions involved, the SPJ board of directors will ultimately decide.

But thanks to the efforts of all these volunteers, I feel like our SPJ year is off to a good start.

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Nobody asked me but…updates from the president

Nobody asked me but*…Honesty still seems like the best policy.

That’s something U.S. Department of Justice officials ought to keep in mind while evaluating a new policy proposal that would enable agency spokespeople to be less than honest in answering inquiries about the existence of public records in national security matters.

I understand there are some things that a government needs to keep secret when it comes to national security.

But the Justice Department has the ability to classify documents as secret and deny access. What it does not need is the ability to depart from the truth when a reporter simply asks if a document exists.

Our Freedom of Information Committee is drafting a response to this proposed policy. I was glad to see Utah Sen. Mike Lee weigh in on it as well.

Bad Doc Databank Update

Along with representatives from several journalism groups, I took part last week in a conference call with senior officials in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

We were doing our best to convince them to restore the public use file of the National Practitioners Databank file, which keeps track of malpractice and disciplinary cases involving physicians.

The physicians are not identified in the databank, but by using other public files, reporters in several cities have been able to write highly useful public service stories about cases involving doctors in their area.

That is until recently when the agency shut down the public use file. Along with several other groups, SPJ has been urging HHS officials to restore the public file.

We made what I thought was a very strong and cogent case in the conference call. I wished it were possible to tell you that we changed the government’s position in this matter. That remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

Help for Endangered Advisers

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, once quipped that there are two occupations in America that are more dangerous the better you are at them: suicide bomber and student journalism adviser.

With that peril in mind, the SPLC recently set up a new blog called FACT (Fired Adviser Comfort Team.) It has a kind of edgy, kind of gallows sense of humor about a very serious problem: censorship of student media. Check it out.

It will make you appreciate the often difficult position that student media advisers undertake every working day. If you know of someone who is experiencing similar difficulty, pass along the link.

A Tip of the Fedora

Kudos to longtime SPJ member David McHam, who was honored at Baylor University recently with the first ever Legacy in Journalism Education Award.

Also a shout out to my friends in our Rio Grande SPJ chapter for continuing the conversation on the language we use in immigration stories by co-sponsoring a discussion at the University of New Mexico.

And here’s one of the more creative ways I’ve ever seen of a chapter keeping track of its meeting minutes. The SPJ chapter at my alma mater, Columbia University, posted a video with their singing minutes. These guys look like they are having fun.

A Sad Note

SPJ notes with sorrow the death of Josephine Varnier Stone, an aspiring journalist who died recently after she was hit by a motor vehicle in Richmond, Va.

Josephine was one of the the student journalists on our Working Press team at the 2009 SPJ National Convention in Indianapolis. Read more about her.

Our deepest condolences to her family and friends.

Call for Volunteers

A group of volunteers assembled by the Membership Committee will be making calls soon to lapsed members in the hope of convincing them to re-up. This valuable effort helped us retain members when we first tried it last year.

We could always use a few more people willing to make phone calls. I’m going to be making calls. If you would like to join us in this effort, please contact membership chair Holly Edgell at dateline.belize@gmail.com.

*The title of this blog is a nod to Jimmy Cannon, one of my favorite sportswriters when I was growing up in New York City.

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