Archive for February, 2012


The cruelest month: Mourning journalists killed in Syria

Poet T.S. Elliot wrote that April is the cruelest month.

But so far this year with the numbers of journalists killed in the last few weeks, I would assign that dismal distinction to February.

Syria has been the source of the most heartbreaking news, where the indiscriminate shelling of the civilian population also claimed the lives of two journalists last week, veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik.

Their deaths came one week after New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid, who died of an asthma attack while covering the conflict in northern Syria.

(Though, to be sure, the fourth month is cruel in its own right, as April 2011 brought the deaths of Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington in Libya.)

The loss here is incalculable. All three of these journalists put their lives on the line — as they had so many times before — to describe in basic human terms the harrowing extent of the suffering by Syrians under daily bombardment.

It was particularly chilling to hear Colvin’s voice on CNN as she described watching a 2-year-old child die from a piece of shrapnel embedded in his chest.  Colvin was killed the next day.

It was also incredibly sad to read the final dispatch from Shadid, who by all accounts was one of the best and brightest foreign correspondents. Reading his work, you could always detect a well-spring of humanity and his respect for history.

I was especially moved to hear him in an interview describing how important it was for him to share his knowledge with younger journalists.

Their deaths come against a backdrop of a recent Committee to Protect Journalists report, which found that at least 46 journalists died in the line of duty in 2011, the highest level on record.

Colvin, Ochlik and Shadid all lost their lives while answering the highest calling of our profession, to tell difficult and important truths in the face of tremendous adversity.

On behalf of SPJ, I wish to extend to their families and colleagues our most heartfelt sympathies.

In other news: Be sure to tune in to the next episode of Studio SPJ on Wednesday, Feb. 29 at 1 p.m. ET when our guest will be Thomas Peele.

Peele is the author of a new book, “Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash and the Assassination of a Journalist.”

Peele was one of the lead reporters in a collaborative investigation into the August 2007 murder of Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey.

The book tells the story of Bailey’s murder, the history of the Black Muslim movement and the cult to which his killers belonged.

The program is hosted by the Northern California chapter of SPJ. Former chapter president Linda Jue will serve as moderator.

To listen to the live broadcast or hear a podcast later, click here.

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Police erasing evidence: Men in black (and blue)

What is up lately with a few of the men (and women) in blue acting like they are the Men in Black?

SPJ is tracking the outcome of an internal affairs investigation in Memphis where a local photojournalist contends police tried to prevent him from taking photos and video of a local businessman being arrested in a case that started with a parking violation.

See the story here, as reported by Memphis television station ABC24.

I sent a letter to the Memphis Police Director earlier this month expressing our deep concerns over the allegations.

What’s more troubling though is that this isn’t the first instance where police have been accused of erasing photographs or video of officers making an arrest.

In Baltimore, there is a case making its way through the courts involving a citizen who made a similar complaint about police deleting video he took of a police encounter with his friend at near a race track in 2010.

The U.S. Justice Department last month intervened in a civil rights lawsuit brought by the Baltimore man and stood up for a citizen’s right to record police actions in public places.

“The right to record police officers while performing duties in a public place, as well as the right to be protected from the warrantless seizure and destruction of those recordings, are not only required by the Constitution,” the Justice Department stated“They are consistent with our fundamental notions of liberty, promote the accountability of our government officers, and instill public confidence in the police officers who serve us daily.”

These two incidents are hardly a trend, and in my view, most law enforcement officers are professionals who know better than to destroy images that could be considered private property or perhaps even evidence.

But they remind me of the running gag in “Men in Black,” where Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones keep using their flash pen to erase the memory of what an eyewitness has seen.

It’s no laughing matter when a police officer goes beyond simply impounding a camera and takes the extraordinary step of deleting its contents.

Rightly or wrongly, such an action leaves the public with the impression that the officers have something to hide.

We live in a world where so many people have the capability of taking a picture or video with the cell phone in their pocket.

This is good when it comes to breaking news events. For law enforcement, it can also provide valuable evidence when a crime occurs.

We will monitor how the Memphis case turns out. We’ve also offered our help in starting dialogue with police on the First Amendment issues involved.

Whatever comes of  these cases in Baltimore and Memphis, let’s hope this is more an aberration than a trend.

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A Valentine for journalism – ‘This I Know’

Our SPJ colleagues in Colorado have produced a video that I’d like to bring to your attention.

It’s a 60-second valentine to the power of journalism called “This I Know.”

The video was born out of the frustration many of us felt after coming so tantalizing close to passage of a national Shield Law for journalists in late 2010.

But then came Wikileaks and the bipartisan support we had won came unglued. At the end of that debate you might have thought that the whole point of the Shield law was to deal with Julian Assange.

Lost in that debate was the simple fact of the people whom a Shield Law was meant to protect, hard-working journalists whose work shines a light on those dark or unnoticed corners of society. It’s work that vital to the health of a democracy.

So last spring, a group of volunteers set out to remind people of the real beneficiaries of a Shield Law – not just the journalists who produce this valuable work – but the readers, viewers and listeners who depend upon it.

To drive home this point, we assembled a cast of mostly non-journalists. They included a lawyer, a hospice director, a public relations professional, a bartender, a gadfly and a law student.

The only journalist in the bunch was a 16-year-old crusading editor of a high school newspaper.

The one common denominator of the group was their appreciation of the work that journalists do.

Under the direction of my SPJ colleague Cynthia Hessin and the camera work of my friend Jerome Ryden, we gathered one Saturday morning in the Denver studio of Rocky Mountain PBS.

They took turns reading lines that began with the refrain, “Because of a journalist…”

“Because of a journalist…I know who used steroids in baseball.”

“Because of a journalist…I know who covered up the Watergate break-in.”

“Because of a journalist…I know about the torture at Abu Ghraib.”

I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a slick video. The people speaking these lines are clearly not polished actors or spokespeople.

They are just regular folks who happen to believe that the work we do matters.

That’s why I screened this video on the night I took my oath as SPJ president in New Orleans.

That’s also why I’m asking chapter leaders if they would consider screening this video at the start of their next SPJ event or posting it to their chapter website.

Will any of this move us one bit closer to a national Shield Law? Not likely.

But in these tough times, I think it’s important to remind people of the value journalism has to the people who rely upon us for the work we do.

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Notes from the Executive Committee meeting in Charlotte

Live from Charlotte

Our recent winter meeting of the SPJ Executive Committee on Jan.  28 in Charlotte, N.C., marked an important first: a live webcast of most of our daylong meeting.

It was not without some technical snags. We couldn’t access a WiFi network and the cord to the desktop computer was a bit short.

And the configuration of the room made it difficult for the Web audience to hear everyone.

But we made adjustments, moved some furniture closer and spoke a more clearly to the webcam.

About 11 members tuned in, and by the afternoon, several of them were emailing us with questions and observations that were helpful.

It was a good first effort, one that I’m sure we can improve upon when the full board meets in Indianapolis in April.

A tip of the fedora here to board member Michael Koretzky who has been advocating for these webcasts for several years.

Strategic Plan Revisited

During our meeting, we began work on updating our long-range strategic plan, which the SPJ board first adopted about five years ago.

When it was originally drafted in November 2007, the Executive Committee wanted the plan revised periodically.

In Charlotte, we quickly reached a consensus that no major overhaul was needed. In fact, many of the goals set in the document describe the work we’ve done since then.

But we did agree to update that plan, and we’ll take up the section that deals with Society operations when the Executive Committee reconvenes in Washington D.C. in July.

Prepping for the DNC

We heard a presentation from leaders of the Greater Charlotte chapter on their plans for raising SPJ’s profile when the Democratic National Convention is held there in early September.

The chapter has some ambitious plans, including a training seminar for journalists who will cover the convention, and a style guide that would help visiting journalists get to know the city.

The committee endorsed the chapter’s application for a grant to help them carry out these plans, subject to the approval of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board.

We also agreed to send a letter questioning Charlotte officials about a recently adopted ordinance that could make it difficult for photojournalists covering the convention to do their jobs (as well as for residents who live in that area).


International SPJ members

We heard a report from the International Journalism Committee on ways in which SPJ might go about growing its membership in other countries.

The committee’s overall sentiment was to welcome such members and charter chapters oversees while taking care to build in safeguards that will promote journalism that is independent and professional.

After some discussion, the board agreed to focus first on individual members, noting that SPJ already has a small number of members overseas.

We also instructed the committee to come back with specific policy proposals that we can put before the full SPJ board in late April.

Virtual chapters/Affinity groups

We discussed a report from an ad hoc committee that examined the feasibility of organizing members into virtual chapters or affinity groups based upon mutual professional interest such as court reporting or online journalism.

The ad hoc committee recommended against creating virtual chapters with some members seeing it as having a potentially negative effect on geographic chapters. We agreed.

But we also decided to further explore setting up some affinity groups on a trial basis. Our first step in this direction will be to poll members and see what sort of groups they might be interested in joining.

In other matters

The committee also endorsed several proposals, including:

-A strategic communication plan to bring some uniformity when SPJ issues press releases as well as a means to measure the impact of those statements.

-A plan to create a public service announcement consisting of a series of eight one-minute videos that feature various journalists and how their stories helped members of the public. We suggested some ways in which production costs of the video can be minimized. The plan will be subject to a vote by the SDX Foundation board.

-A plan by the Diversity Committee to continue with the diversity fellows program at the Excellence in Journalism 2012 conference as well as finding ways to work with the fellows during the rest of the year.

We also heard report from a committee that is working on implementing the one-member, one-vote system approved by delegates in 2011. Watch for more details on this plan in the months ahead.

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