Archive for May, 2012


Graduating from stereotypes: A marriage proposal

Leave it to me to learn the hard way about the importance of shedding cultural stereotypes.

I nearly made an embarrassing mistake earlier this month while covering the graduation ceremony of Bergen Community College.

The commencement exercises took place inside a large area that once had been used for professional hockey and basketball.

With over 2,100 graduates to chose from, it was not hard to find one interesting student on whom to focus .

The valedictorian, an aspiring art therapist, had a great story to tell when she pointed out that her graduation came exactly 10 years to the day that her mom left Ecuador to find a life of better opportunity for her two young children in northern New Jersey.

The student gave a very heartfelt, emotional speech, and I hustled into the audience to interview her mom.

So I was feeling pretty good when I returned to the floor of the arena where a publicist for the college pointed out another story: One graduate had proposed marriage to another while picking up their diplomas.

A volunteer helped me locate the couple in a sea of blue caps and gowns, and I did a quick interview.

The student was named Jess, who wore a nice red tie, told me in a husky voice about getting down on one knee. That was the signal for a group of friends to unfurl a banner that read “Will you marry me?”

The other student, named Melissa, said yes.

That was pretty nervy in front of all these people, I suggested.

“You have no idea,” Jess replied.

So I wrote the story feeling pretty good about how it turned out. But then several hours later, my editor called.

The photographer — a much better observer then me — noticed that Jess, who I identified as a guy, was a woman. Jess was short for Jessica, not Jesse.

Fortunately we fixed it before publication. But afterward, it made me realize the extent to which my cultural blinders were in place.

Granted the interview was brief, and they were both wearing gowns. But in an era where marriage equality is a hot-button topic, I should know better than to assume that “couple”  and “marriage proposal” means a man and a woman.

It drove home the point to me how important it is to consider one’s own cultural assumptions and be more observant.

Next time I’ll know better. Plus, I owe the photographer a beer.

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My excellent SPJ weekend in Colorado

I traveled 2,000 miles last weekend to spend a few hours in Silverton, Colorado. It was well worth the trip.

A breeze that blew across the old mining town carried four sounds: A dog barking. The spring runoff in the creek behind me. A distant train whistle. A brass band.

The music came from Silverton Brass Band, which was playing John Phillip Sousa’s Washington Post March. This seemed fitting since they were there to celebrate SPJ honoring The Silverton Standard & The Miner as one of our Historic Sites in Journalism.

Here’s a clip that sets the scene:

Next, here’s a video of Mark Esper, the paper’s editor and publisher, in Victorian period garb, who tells a bit of the paper’s history and why being added to the SPJ list was such an honor.

What happened to the paper in recent years is one of the great “feel good” stories about journalism in recent years. In this clip, Fritz Kinke, a printer and board member with the San Juan Historical Society, explains the Society’s decision to buy the paper and run it as a non-profit.

And finally, here’s is a clip of the Silverton Brass Band, playing their rendition of “Kansas City.”

What was really heart-warming about this story is that we were honoring not just a historic newspaper office but the unbreakable bond that has developed between that paper and the community it has served since 1875.

 

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Focus on membership: Highlights of April board of directors meeting

One of the pleasures of being SPJ president is the opportunity to preside over meetings with lots of intelligent discussion on large, meaningful issues.

That was the case Saturday in Indianapolis when the national SPJ board gathered for its spring meeting. We took on several big topics. Here’s a brief recap of what was discussed:

– Past president Hagit Limor briefed us on the email ballot system we will be using in September when all 8,000 SPJ members will have their first chance to directly elect officers under the one member, one vote rule we adopted last year.

We also approved a set of campaign guidelines for candidates that reaffirmed our long-standing tradition that board members should not engage in any electioneering for other candidates.

Our plan calls for a process that will enable candidates to send up to three email messages directly to members as well as a means to create candidate websites. You’ll hear more about this in the months ahead.

Much of our meeting was devoted to issues involving growing SPJ’s membership. No surprise there since that had been my emphasis this year.

-We discussed reviving our institutional membership for media organizations on a one-year trial basis. We currently have about 19 collegiate institutional members. We formerly had some newspapers join as institutions, but currently we do not have any.

The board instructed Executive Director Joe Skeel to craft a proposal later this year as well as to explore ways in which we can make SPJ’s presence felt in more newsrooms.

-We had a long discussion on the pros and cons of actively recruiting SPJ members from other countries. We also talked about whether our legal defense fund should be only for U.S. journalists or should it be a global fund.

The board didn’t take a vote on that,  although an informal show of hands indicated a majority of the board favored taking a global approach on both of these questions. This matter will come up for a vote later in the year.

-We also adopted a recommendation from Region 11 Director Teri Carnicelli, by streamlining the requirements for a new campus chapter to form. From now on, such chapters will be required to have one adviser who is an SPJ member rather than three faculty members.

-Sadly, we deactivated several pro and student chapters that we had been carrying on our membership rolls despite the lack of any recent activity. We did, however, welcome a new chapter, the Texas Panhandle Pro chapter.

-Last but not least, the board agreed to locate our 2014 Excellence in Journalism conference at the Grand Opry Hotel in Nashville, TN. I’m very excited by this selection. Nashville is a great city in which to hold a national conference.

Your national board members are a hard-working bunch. They started at 8 a.m., and except for a lunch break, kept going until 5:30 p.m. when we adjourned. I appreciate their effort and attention.

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