Archive for the ‘Advocacy’ Category


One step forward: Shield Law

So this happened on the first day of August in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee: Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) submitted an amendment to the shield law bill he and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced back in May that actually strengthens the protections contained in the Free Flow of Information Act.

And the committee adopted the amendment.

Great news, but this is no time to get complacent.

Yes, S. 987 has bipartisan support (19 sponsors and counting), but key members of the judiciary committee remain uncommitted or intend to vote against it.

Most troubling is that Sen. Dianne Feinsten (D-Calif.) and co-sponsor Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) want to amend the bill to define who can be a journalist. Feinstein did the same thing the last time a shield bill was before the committee.

The latest Feinstein-Durbin amendment substitutes the word “journalists” wherever the Schumer-Graham bill contains “covered persons.”

You see, the Schumer legislation seeks to protect people engaged in the act of journalism. Feinstein wants to limit the protection to, as she said in committee, “real reporters.”

Specifically, the Schumer bill protects those who gather news and other information of public interest with the primary intent to disseminate the information to the public.

To receive the qualified protection of S. 987, an individual must be found by a court to meet each of these requirements:

  1. The person regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits or reports about matters of public interest by (a) conducting interviews; (b) directly observing events; or (c) collecting, reviewing, or analyzing original writings, statements, communications, reports, memoranda, records, transcripts, documents, photographs, recordings, tapes, materials, data, or other information.
  2. The person intended to disseminate news to the public at the beginning of the newsgathering process.
  3. The person obtains the news or information [being] sought in order to disseminate the news or information by means of print, broadcasting, mechanical, photographic, electronic, or other means.

Feinstein’s amendment, in addition to replacing “covered person” with “journalist,” defines “journalist” as a person who is paid – either salaried, independent contractor or agent – by an entity that disseminates news or information.

Her amendment also includes language about having the intent to disseminate news or information, but it’s pretty clear that under her definition, a lot of people covered by the Schumer bill would be left without the fig leaf that a limited shield law provides.

But this is no time to get despondent.

Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) ended the committee meeting before Feinstein’s or anyone else’s amendment (there are close to 40) could be brought to a vote. The committee will take the bill up again after the August recess.

In the meantime, contact the members of the Judiciary Committee, ask them to vote for the bill as presented by Schumer and to vote against any amendments that weaken it, such as Feinstein’s.

Heck, contact the good senator from California and explain why it’s better to define journalism rather than journalist.

 

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Progress on shield bill

Good news on the Shield Law front over the past week.

On Wednesday (7/17), a bipartisan group of senators led by New York Democrat Charles Schumer and South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham said they’re going to push for a Shield Law that enshrines revisions to Justice Department policies announced by Attorney General Eric Holder on July 12.

Holder’s revisions to DOJ guidelines would make it harder for prosecutors to obtain journalists’ phone records without advance notice.

The bill Schumer, Lindsay and their colleagues announced Wednesday would go a bit further, ensuring that an impartial judge reviews government attempts to compel journalists and news agencies or third parties, such as phone companies and internet providers, before the Justice Department tries to obtain them.

“In many ways, our bill is tougher than the new [DOJ] guidelines,” Schumer said at a press conference, “but the DOJ has smartly proposed new ideas that would offer additional protections to journalists while carefully balancing that need against national security.”

Holder’s policy changes came after various journalism groups, including SPJ, voiced concerns about the Justice Department’s seizure of the AP’s phone records and a Fox News reporter’s emails. In a letter to Holder in June, SPJ expressed serious concerns that the DOJ wasn’t following its own guidelines for dealing with demands for information from journalists in the government’s investigations of leaks.

After meeting with and hearing from a slew of journalism groups, Holder surprised me and actually strengthened the guidelines.

Of particular note was the Attorney General’s statement of principles: “As an initial matter, it bears emphasis that it has been and remains the Department’s policy that members of the news media will not be subject to prosecution based solely on newsgathering activities.”

The policy changes Holder outlined seek to strike “the appropriate balance between two vital interests,” he said in his report to the President: “protecting the American people by pursuing those who violate their oaths through unlawful disclosures of information and safeguarding the essential role of a free press in fostering government accountability and an open society.”

Schumer, Lindsay and shield bill co-sponsors Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Roy Blount, R-Mo., and Jonny Isakson, R-Ga., echoed that sentiment in Wednesday’s press conference announcing their intent to submit a “tougher bill” than either the previous bill that languished in the Senate three years ago or Holder’s revised guidelines.

“We’ve struck the right balance here between national security and protecting those who cover government,” Graham said after noting that “guidelines are not gonna cut it in the 21st century.

“We need a statute, a law that transcends administrations.”

Other societies wish they had the kind of reporting on government that Americans have, Graham said.

“We have it, we need to protect it, and quite frankly, cherish it,” he said.

Amen.

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On “fundamental” rights

During a local SPJ discussion about legislation affecting Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act in March, state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) told the gathered journalists that FOI is not a right but a privilege.

Members of the audience objected to Williams’ characterization of FOI laws as a privilege. One young journalist said it disturbed her to hear freedom of information described as a privilege, “when it’s a tool that protects a variety of rights.”

But it seems Williams may have just been presaging the retrograde thinking evident in Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McBurney v. Young, a case that challenged a provision of Virginia’s open-records law that limits access to citizens of that state.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a unanimous court, declared Virginia’s citizens-only restriction constitutional. Much of the opinion unfortunately focused on the commercial uses of public data, but it’s the section on the history of public records that offends open-government sensibilities.

Justice Alito and the court show skilled reasoning in noting that, although Virginia’s public-records law denies access to nonresidents, it does allow nonresidents access to its courts and other data in a way that provided most of the documents that had been sought by the two non-Virginian petitioners, Mark McBurney and Roger Hurlbert.

But when Justice Alito’s opinion veers into a peevish recounting of the blighted history of public-records jurisprudence, he and the court show how out of touch with Americans they are.

Does it really matter that “[m]ost founding-era English cases provided that only those persons who had a personal interest in non-judicial records were permitted to access them,” as Justice Alito wrote? Or that 19th century American cases tracked a similar philosophy?

He could just as easily have noted that American law once considered only white male property owners eligible to vote, and been just as relevant.

It’s alarming that Justice Alito asserts repeatedly that access to public records is not a “fundamental” right and that the country was just fine without FOI laws before the 1960s and will be fine without them in the future

Yes, Justice Alito and friends, the federal FOI law is only 47 years old and similar state laws about as recent. Open-government advocates fought hard-won battles to make local, state and federal governments more transparent to the citizens they serve.

Maybe “the Constitution itself is [not] a Freedom of Information Act,” as you wrote, but your opinion in McBurney gives regressive legislators safe cover to start closing access doors that are now open.

Only a half dozen states, including Arkansas, have public records laws that allow agencies to deny out-of-staters access to state and local documents. Let’s hope the number of states limiting access to residents remains at six after this ruling because the ability of Americans to figure out what is going on in their country – not just their state – will be severely diminished..

Without access to public records from many states, the Columbus Dispatch in 2009 could not have demonstrated that excessive secrecy exists at public universities nationwide because of abuse of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

Without access to multiple jurisdictions, the Kansas City Star in 1997 might not have revealed lax safety measures nationwide that allowed college athletes to die.

Without access to a broad range of data, ProPublica’s Robin Fields in 2010 would have been hampered in showing wide disparities nationally in dialysis care.

That is scary, particularly at a time when the world is becoming more open. Americans don’t need more bunkering and secrecy. We are one nation, extremely mobile, and information is more portable and important than ever.

If we want to remain a beacon of freedom and justice, of progressive modernism, of advanced thinking, then we need to stand up against thinking that it’s OK to restrict or inhibit access to our governments, no matter where we live.

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On AP’s “illegal immigration” style change

I’m glad The Associated Press continues to examine the best way to describe being in this country in violation of U.S. law.

The AP is right to note that the English language evolves, and that our everyday usage contributes to that evolution. I hope journalists and others continue this conversation about immigration and people who come here legally or illegally until we arrive at terminology most of us can agree on.

Some might argue that the new style recommendation is less precise than ‘illegal alien’ or ‘illegal immigrant,’ but it’s important to note that a significant portion of the country’s population regards those terms as offensive. It wasn’t that long ago that keepers of journalism style fought dropping ‘Negro’ as a term for black or African-American people, yet news organizations adopted the newer style.

As journalists we have to take into account what people call themselves while also taking care to be precise and accurate. Sometimes those two things are in conflict and require an honest discussion to resolve that clash.

On Sept. 27, 2011, SPJ adopted a resolution at its annual convention in New Orleans urging “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.”

Less than a year ago, The AP Stylebook — used by many news organizations as a guide to uniformity of language — adopted “illegal immigrant” as a term of choice over “illegal alien.” AP was careful to note that “illegal immigrant” wasn’t the only acceptable description, but the term is what observers latched onto.

Based on AP Senior VP and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll’s statement about this week’s decision, the wire service has taken the “continuous discussion and re-evaluation” suggestion to heart.

The discussions on this topic have been wide-ranging and include many people from many walks of life. (Earlier, they led us to reject descriptions such as “undocumented,” despite ardent support from some quarters, because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence.)

Those discussions continued even after AP affirmed “illegal immigrant” as the best use, for two reasons.

A number of people felt that “illegal immigrant” was the best choice at the time. They also believed the always-evolving English language might soon yield a different choice and we should stay in the conversation.

Also, we had in other areas been ridding the Stylebook of labels. The new section on mental health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of schizophrenic, for example.

And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to “illegal immigrant” again.

We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance.

Carroll goes on to note that “We believe more evolution is likely down the road.”

Yes, the conversations should continue, but I think the AP has arrived at a commendable middle ground.

Here is the new AP style entry in its entirety:

illegal immigration Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.

Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.

Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally. For people granted a temporary right to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story.

As we all know, words can hurt as well as inspire or soothe.

 

 

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ATLANTA TO DROP CHARGES

Word from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed that charges will be dropped against two student journalists and an intern for Creative Loafing who were all arrested last November while photographing and recording Occupy Atlanta protests. I hope SPJ’s letter, along with letters from other journalism organizations, may have played a small part in this outcome.

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Occupied by outrage over arrests of journalists at protest events

Robert Stolarik, Julia C. Reinhart, John Bolger, Nathan Heustis, John Knefel, Jacob Roszak, Alisen Redmond, Judith Kim.

All of these journalists were doing their jobs on public sidewalks or streets when they were arrested or detained or harassed by police.

Two of them —Redmond and Kim — are scheduled to be tried in Atlanta City Court this Friday, Oct. 12, on misdemeanor “obstruction of traffic” charges. Both women are student journalists: Ms. Redmond at Kennesaw State University and Ms. Kim at Georgia State University.

Both were arrested last November while covering an Occupy Atlanta demonstration, apparently singled out by police while the two were taking photos and video of the protests alongside other journalists. They spent 14 hours in jail before being released.

SPJ, the National Press Photographers Association, the Student Press Law Center and others have sent letters to Atlanta officials condemning continued prosecution of this case and arguing that student journalists are no less journalists than those who work for the Atlanta Journal Constitution or CNN.

The arrest and lengthy detention of Redmond and Kim were outrageous enough, but to hold a dubious “obstruction of traffic” charge over their heads for nearly a year seems an abuse of prosecutorial privilege and authority.

Most of the other journalists I named above were arrested while covering the anniversary demonstrations of Occupy Wall Street in New York City in mid-September. You can read more about them in this Storify story. (Kudos to Josh Stearns of Free Press for all the works he’s done over the last year tracking these arrests.)

One — Stolarik, a New York Times photographer — was arrested in August in the Bronx while taking pictures of an arrest that was part of the NYPD’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” program. Charges of obstruction of governmental administration and resisting arrest remained lodged against Stolarik as of September 30, according to a letter to NYC Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly by NPPA general counsel Mickey Osterreicher.

The OWS anniversary arrests and the police assault on Stolarik indicate a ramped up police practice of preventing journalists from bearing public witness to public events — despite clear legal precedent that protects journalists who are observing and recording such events and despite an NYPD memo sent out after last year’s raid on Zucotti Park that reminded officers of the right of journalists to be present.

Although the NPPA and SPJ (through our local chapter, the New York Deadline Club) expressed dismay and concern over the NYPD’s actions against journalists last month, the groups extended an offer to Kelly to meet with him and his administrators “to improve police-press relations and to clarify the ability of credentialed and non-credentialed journalists to photograph and record on public streets without fear of intimidation and arrest,” as NPPA’s Osterreicher put it.

As of Oct. 10, NPPA and SPJ had not heard back from Kelly.

 

 

 

 

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With Bryan College censorship, balancing seeking truth with minimizing harm

Events moved faster than I could write my first Freedom of the Prez post.

I’d planned to let you know SPJ is aware that the president of a small, Christian college in Tennessee ordered a student journalist not to publish a story about a former professor whom the FBI arrested over the summer in a child-sex sting.

The student editor, Alex Green, published the story on his own and distributed it on the Bryan College campus, which was courageous in my eyes. I learned about it from Jim Romenesko’s blog.

I asked Vice President of Campus Chapter Affairs Neil Ralston and President-elect Dave Cuillier to do some fact-gathering so I could decide what SPJ’s official position would be.

Meanwhile, Bryan College President Dr. Stephen Livesay issued an apology Wednesday afternoon, which you can read here.

I’m glad to see Dr. Livesay acknowledge that his action to stop the story’s publication “may have been a mistake.”

I also appreciate his openness about the administration’s thinking in stopping the story’s publication, though I disagree with it.

In a sense, this incident provides a case study in applying SPJ’s Code of Ethics, because the Code was intended to help journalists balance competing ideals as they make decisions in their reporting.

The competing ideals here:

Seek truth and report it vs minimize harm.

Alex Green, editor of the Bryan College student newspaper, the Triangle, sought out the truth behind the abrupt resignation of a respected scholar and teacher.

In his explanation about why he chose to publish his story despite Dr. Livesay’s directive, Green said he’d presumed that the professor jumped to a better job. But when the explanation he got from the school indicated the teacher left to “pursue other opportunities,” Green began trying to learn the real reason.

Green’s discovery of the professor’s arrest records in a neighboring state as well as the FBI’s press release led to the story he published and distributed on Monday.

Dr. Livesay’s apology and explanation on Wednesday shows a deep concern for the human impact of such a story (minimize harm), not just on the alleged perpetrator but on the campus community.

I admire his sensitivity and commitment to the principles under which his school operates, but I don’t agree with his news judgment.

In this case, seek truth and report it outweighs minimize harm.

 

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Filter and vet this quote? Fuggitaboudit!

Here’s a bad journalism habit that needs to end now.

A July 15 New York Times story described a practice said to be prevalent among reporters covering the U.S. presidential election.

The story by Jeremy W. Peters detailed how many media organizations have allowed top campaign officials to vet and alter quotes as the price of being granted on-the-record access.

If true, this practice should stop before this election cycle goes any further. It’s shameful that reporters – who presumably are among the best and brightest in their newsrooms to have drawn this assignment – could be so gutless as to go along with these pre-conditions to an interview.

Their editors – who clearly know about the practice – ought to be ashamed to have allowed this abdication of editorial control to have occurred on their watch.

Quit it. Stop. Now.

Earlier this year, I covered a political rally in East Rutherford, N.J., where David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, came to deliver an endorsement for a Democratic congressman who was an early Obama supporter.

Axelrod gave his speech, and afterward I was part of a group of reporters who were able to ask him a few questions.

None of his handlers made any attempt to impose conditions on the interview. Had there been a request to review quotes, I would have informed them that we were operating under New Jersey rules. The response would have been something to the effect of “Fugghitaboudit.”

Bear in mind, I’m not saying that reporters shouldn’t double check quotes with a sources for the sake of accuracy. I do that all the time, as I’m sure most reporters do. We want to get quotes rights.

But the practice described in the Times story goes beyond making sure a quote is accurate.

It’s more about access and control and allowing a political campaign to massage the quotes that appear in a story.

But what could a campaign official possibly have to say to make it worth a reporter’s while to allow a source to manipulate a story?

The Times story reminded me of a book that had a big influence on me when I was thinking about becoming a journalist.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of a series of stories that Rolling Stone magazine writer Timothy Crouse wrote about the press corps that was covering the 1972 campaign between President Richard Nixon and Democratic challenger George McGovern.

His stories became the book “The Boys on the Bus,” which described some of the perils so-called pack journalism.

But whatever their shortcomings, the boys on the bus never let a Nixon or McGovern staffer dictate how quotes would appear in a story.

The Times story also reminded me of a painful lesson I learned shortly after starting my journalism career.

I was writing a story on the controversy over the proposed closure of several Catholic elementary schools in northern New Jersey.

One of the people I quoted was an outspoken mother of a student who was outraged at how the local archdiocese had handled the situation.

Shortly before the story was set to run, the mother called me back, asking me to read her the part of the story where I had quoted her.

Being an inexperienced reporter, I did so. She then pleaded with me to allow her to change her quotes in order to tone down or eliminate her criticism.

She was not disputing the accuracy of what I had written. But after talking to her local pastor, she had gotten cold feet about criticizing church officials.

I reluctantly agreed even though it rendered that part of my story fairly useless after she had backpedaled away from all her previous statements.

When my editor found out what I had done, he was furious. But it was too late. The story ran with the watered-down quotes, and I learned a painful lesson, never again repeated, about letting people manipulate my story by ceding editorial control.

If the story had happened today, I would have kept the original quote but allowed the woman to later disavow her criticism.

The Times deserved credit for raising this issue. One of the Times editors is quoted as saying that journalists should push back harder against this practice.

I couldn’t agree more. By all means, let’s push back.

Kudos also to The Associated Press, the National Journal and several other media organizations that have come out since the story ran and affirmed they will not allow their reporters to engage in this practice.

The public expects us to provide them with an accurate and unvarnished account of what happens on the campaign trail. These stories are too important to allow a source to crawl into the story in this way.

I would urge any reporter asked to do so to refer back to New Jersey rules of journalism: Fugghitaboudit.

 

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Responding to The Red and Black controversy

Something remarkable happened in Athens, Georgia last week.

A group of student journalists — mad at what they saw as an infringment upon their editorial independence — walked out of the newsroom of The Red and Black, the independent newspaper for the University of Georgia.

They used their basic reporting skills and social media tools to create their own website and let the world know about their grievances.

It worked. In just 72 hours, their campaign forced the management of the paper to relent on just about every one of the student’s demands.

The paper’s board of directors apologized, a board member who wrote a draft memo that infuriated the students resigned and editorial control returned to the place where it was meant to be – in the hands of the student editor-in-chief.

When was the last time you ever heard of something like this happening in any newsroom, collegiate or professional?

What these students did took smarts, courage and moxie. They showed the kind of talents that will serve them well as journalists. They have my admiration.

And read all over….

As many of you know, Michael Koretzky and I have been having a very public disagreement over what SPJ’s response should have been to The Red and Black controversy.

The first thing you need to know though is that I have a lot of respect for Michael. He is completely fearless about bringing up difficult and often uncomfortable issues that others have been reluctant to raise.

That’s precisely what he’s doing in this instance, provoking a discussion that is well worth having.

I also love the way he has helped drag SPJ kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Our first SPJ webinar happened this summer because of Michael’s insistence. I helped produce it, and the results were awesome.

On The Red and Black case, though, we have an honest difference of opinion, not so much on the substance of the case but on the process of how to best do advocacy work.

Fact-finding first

A substantial amount of my time as president this year has centered around advocating for journalists, many of whom were either in trouble with police, campus administrators, lawyers, bureaucrats or elected officials.

One thing I quickly realized was that there was no one-size-fits-all strategy. Each situation required a different approach.

Sometimes I made phone calls. Sometimes I wrote letters or op-ed columns. Often it meant talking to local reporters. And most times I used social media like Facebook and Twitter to help get the word out.

My typical method though was to begin with fact-finding. One thing SPJ has taught me is the value of teamwork. So I often delegated this task to a local chapter leader or to a regional director.

So for example, when a Temple University photojournalism student was arrested this spring while taking photographs for a classroom assignment of Philadelphia Police making an arrest, we got involved.

I consulted with Philadelphia chapter president Phil Beck and Region 1 Director Luther Turmelle. In very short order we dashed off a letter to the Philadephia Police commissioner, protesting the arrest.

Be the change…

There are two basic reasons to do advocacy work. One is to feel good about yourself after having gotten off a righteous letter. The other is to actually accomplish real and meaningful change.

My preference has been the latter. Too often, journalism group bang out angry  denunciations that hit the target with a thud and go nowhere. I prefer to get under the skin of those whose behavior I’m trying to change.

Speed is not the issue…

I take pride in the fact that on many of the controversies that cropped up this year, we jumped on them right away and got a quick response.

For example, when New York City police arrested journalists who were covering an Occupy Wall Street protest, we had something drafted that very first day and we stayed on the issue for several months, even penning an open op-ed about it.

Likewise when a school board in New Jersey wanted to codify our Code of Ethics and hold tribunals to judge whether local journalists and bloggers were unethical, Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Smith and I pounced on it.

I spent a lot of time talking to the school board president directly, and in the end, SPJ helped convince the board to drop its policy — all within a matter of days.

Social media is not the issue…

At my job at The Record (not the Hackensack Record) I’m known as one of the more prolific users of social media. I do more blogging and shoot more video than most other reporters and I do my own Internet radio program.

I’ve tried to bring all those same talents to bear while advocating on behalf of SPJ. But an effective advocate needs to have a wide array of tools. And sometimes simply talking to people and asking questions can be more persuasive than tweets or letters.

Patience works…

Not all situations require blasting out instant opinions. Take, for example, the recent controversy at the University of Memphis, where a student paper had its funding cut by a third, more than any other group of campus, following controversy over some of the stories it published and other stories it chose not to cover.

One journalism group asked me to co-sign a letter of protest that simply took as gospel what the students had to say and wrote a short angry letter a day or two later.

I took a different approach. With a lot of help from Neil Ralston,  SPJ’s VP for campus affairs, we asked a lot of questions of campus administrators.

By the time were were done (this took about 10 days) I knew their position backward and forward. And we sent this letter and posted online.

But I also knew their thinking well enough to find the weak spots in their case. And like any good advocate, that’s where I applied the most pressure.

Teamwork works…

When the Red and Black controversy erupted, I turned to Neil and Michael for their advice. I encouraged Michael to do the fact-finding.

But either Michael did not understand his role or I failed to explain it to him.

I was glad when he offered to send someone to go to Athens and attend a pivotal meeting with the paper’s managers and student staff last Friday.

I was looking forward to hearing from him on what had happened and formulating a quick response.

Instead, I opened my email Saturday morning to find that Michael had gone ahead and posted his findings to his regional director’s blog. I had no clue that he was going to do that. I had been expecting him to report back to me or at least let me know what he was planning to do.

We are much powerful as a advocate for journalism when we work together. Perhaps that makes us a bit less nimble, but it also makes for a smarter and more powerful response.

Michael does not work for me. We are all volunteers in this effort called SPJ. But I do wish he had done more to work with me.

Whose speaks for SPJ?

Michael’s post presented two immediate problems.  Despite the fact that he posted to his regional blog, some people mistook it for SPJ’s position on the Red and Black controversy. One person even tweeted it as such.

Because of that confusion, I called Michael and asked him to take down the post, which he did, albeit under protest.

The president of SPJ speaks for the organization. I’ve been careful in that role to consult with others before issuing an opinion on behalf of the Society.

Getting both sides…

Michael’s post immediately came under fire from some who questioned why he did not make more of an effort to contact the management at The Red and Black to get their reaction to his findings.

Call me old school, but I still believe in the value of getting both sides of a story, whether it’s for a newspaper or a blog post.

It is, after all, what our ethics codes asks us to do. “Test the accuracy of information from all sources.”

That means interviewing all the stakeholders in a story. It does not mean waiting days for them to respond. But it does mean making the phone call and writing “Stakeholder XYZ could not be reached for comment yesterday.”

Michael tells me that’s so 20th century. I respectfully disagree. I think it remains a method that works best no matter what platform or medium we’re working on.

Can we do better?

Of course we can. With his amusing graphics and his snarky sense of humor, Michael makes some interesting suggestions on ways we can use social media as a means to apply pressure to a unfolding situation.

The Red and Black situation was unique. Most journalism controversies don’t erupt and then blow over in a span of a just a few days.

Figuring out how we do it will fall to my successor Sonny Albarado, who becomes president at our convention in September.

I’m not opposed to exploring ways we can have the speed of social media, thorough fact finding, teamwork and deliberation. But let’s get it right, and let’s work together to protect and foster journalism.

n

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Stolen Valor Act vs. free speech: A First Amendment victory

A significant victory for the First Amendment drew scant attention last week, lost amid the barrage of well-deserved coverage given to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Health Care Act.

On the same day, the court, in the case U.S. v. Alvarez, struck down the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a federal crime for someone to falsely claim to be a recipient of military honors, especially the Congressional Medal of Honor.

This was a case in which SPJ and a number of media organizations filed a friend of the court brief urging the justices to do exactly what they did in the name of protecting free speech.

This may seem like an odd place for us to be, defending the rights of someone accused of being a liar, but as so often happens in First Amendment cases, the people on the cutting edge of the law are not exactly role models.

Such is the case with Xavier Alvarez, a California man prosecuted after he described himself at a public meeting as a retired Marine who had won the Medal of Honor.

“Lying was his habit,” observed Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion. Kennedy noted that Alvarez also falsely had claimed to be a former Detroit Red Wing hockey player and that he had lied about marrying a starlet from Mexico.

But when he claimed to be a Medal of Honor recipient, that’s when Alvarez ran afoul of the law, and that’s where the slippery slope of a free-speech problem began.

There are forms of lying that are not protected by the First Amendment, the court noted. (Read the full opinion and related documents and friend of the court briefs, collected by SCOTUSblog.)

Perjury on a witness stand, for example, is a crime because otherwise it would threaten the integrity of any court proceeding.

And making false statements in a defamation case is not protected under the First Amendment.

But here there was no claim that Alvarez defamed anyone or spoke a falsehood under oath. He was prosecuted simply because he falsely claimed to have a medal.

That kind of content-based definition of speech as a crime was troubling to those of us who saw it as a dangerous precedent. What if the next set of laws criminalized falsehoods about some other topic?

Fortunately, a 6-3 majority of justices also saw the problem at the heart of this law.

“Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper would endorse governmental authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable,” Kennedy wrote.

“That governmental power has no clear limiting principal,” Kennedy said, conjuring up the image of “The Ministry of Truth,” from George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

Justice Stephen Breyer also saw another problem in his concurring opinion when he wrote, “the threat of criminal prosecution for making a false statement can  inhibit the speaker from making true statements thereby “chilling” a kind of speech that lies at the First Amendment’s heart.”

Kennedy also pointed out there are remedies to counter such lying that don’t require criminalizing speech.

That’s where SPJ, journalists and other media advocates come in. There are quite a few reporters out there who have exposed the lies of individuals who have fabricated military records and honors.

There are also databases out there that seek to list the true Medal of Honor winners such as this one compiled by The Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Whenever someone describes himself or herself in public as a decorated war hero, it should be a our habit to check out the claim.

That way we’re exercising our First Amendment rights to seek and report the truth while protecting the valor of those who rightfully earned that honor.

SPJ Notes….And speaking of true military heroes, be sure to tune in when you have a moment, to the two most recent podcasts of Studio SPJ. Host Holly Fisher has been interviewing winners of our Sigma Delta Chi Awards, both of whom profiled soldiers.

Here’s the link to a segment she did with Corinne Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot, who wrote about an Army medical unit in Afghanistan.

And here is a link to Holly’s interview with Sara Stuteville, who won for a story she did for Pacific Northwest magazine on a marine’s return to Iraq.

On a day when we celebrate our independence, I think it’s important to remember the sacrifices of those who fought to protect those freedoms. Have a safe and happy Fourth of July.

 

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