Archive for the ‘Advocacy’ Category


Scott Cooper Sentencing: Justice Served, Lessons Learned

Thursday I did something I hope no other SPJ president will ever have to do. Testify against a former SPJ board member who embezzled money from a local SPJ chapter.

Scott Cooper sentenced to 10 years probation, 4 weekends in jail and additional work & community service to repay $43,000 debt to SPJ.I flew to Oklahoma on Wednesday to attend yesterday’s sentencing of Scott Cooper, former region 8 director and secretary-treasurer of the Oklahoma Pro SPJ chapter, in Cleveland County District Court. In 2012, Cooper confessed to stealing $43,220 from the chapter over a period of several years. According to Cooper, he used the money to cover gambling debts and pay personal bills.

In his court testimony, Cooper said a “slight gambling problem” escalated into a large gambling problem due to his own stupidity and bad judgment. His theft was discovered when a series of bad checks bounced following the chapter’s annual awards banquet. Once confronted, the former national board member confessed to falsifying the chapter’s financial records to cover up his crime. He offered the chapter $500 a month to repay his debt, but never followed through.

During his testimony, Cooper said, “I deeply, deeply want to repay what I have taken. My number one priority is to pay this money back.”

Despite that claim, in the 21 months since Cooper was caught, he had not repaid any of the stolen money until Thursday when he produced a check for $3,000. In addition, Cooper just started counseling and community service in October 2014, perhaps in an attempt to mitigate his punishment. Cooper said he attended Gambler’s Anonymous weekly for a while, but said it was too hard to make the meetings given his work schedule at the Farmers Insurance National Document Center in Oklahoma City where he is a document clerk making less than $20,000 a year. Cooper said he resumed the GA meetings three months ago.

Following closing arguments, Judge Greg Dixon deliberated and imposed the following sentence:

  • 10 year deferred probation, without a felony conviction
  • 4 consecutive weekends in county jail, beginning Nov. 14 (Fri., 6 pm to Sun., 6 pm)
  • Monthly payments of $350 beginning Dec. 15 for 10 years
  • Eight additional hours of work or community service every weekend, beginning Dec. 8
  • Prohibited from visiting any casinos
  • Payment of all court fees and service fees related to his sentence
  • Miscellaneous standard probation provisions (can’t leave the state without permission, possess a firearm, consume alcohol, etc.)

If Cooper violates any of those terms, he will return to court to face the consequences which could include prison time and a felony conviction. Some have asked why Cooper wasn’t charged with a felony. The rationale behind that decision is Cooper would be required to report a felony to his employer, likely resulting in his termination and making it difficult to find another job. Without employment, Cooper would be unable to repay his substantial debt to SPJ.

In his closing statement, Judge Greg Dixon told Cooper he was prepared to impose a harsher sentence, but changed his mind after hearing chapter attorney Bob Sheets’ statement that his main priority was repayment, not punishment. Sheets wanted to create an environment for Cooper to remain gainfully employed, so he could stick to a repayment plan to make the chapter whole.

Judge Dixon said he wouldn’t impose counseling on Cooper, because he was not convinced that Cooper had made the choice yet to turn his life around and, until he did, counseling would be of no value.

“You need to toughen up,” Judge Dixon said. “You’ve got a family to take care of.”

This is the official record of the case. I have also made an official statement on behalf of SPJ, much of which comes from the statement I gave during my court testimony. Formal statement aside, I’d like to share my observations.

It was a sad moment for SPJ. Cooper stole more than $43,000 from us. He damaged our reputation and wasted valuable time and resources that could have been better spent fulfilling our mission. He embarrassed an organization that fights for openness, transparency and accountability and damaged our credibility. While many members, volunteers and supporters stood behind us, our critics called us hypocrites.

I first met Cooper when we served as regional directors on the national board together in 2010 or 2011. I remember the first board meeting he missed because he’d been caught. With Cooper’s board seat ominously empty, the SPJ leadership team explained the theft, how it occurred and what SPJ could do about the situation. Imagine 20 jaws, give or take, drop in unison, shocked that a seemingly engaged, passionate journalist could steal from us – right under our noses. It was devastating and far reaching. SPJ went into damage control mode, and we began formulating best practices to prevent this type of incident from occurring again.

When I heard that a sentencing hearing for Cooper had been scheduled, I knew I had to attend. I wanted to support the local chapter, but I also wanted to look him in the eye and tell him how he’d violated his fiduciary responsibility to put SPJ first. When I testified before the court, I had that chance. I gave him my “don’t mess with Mom” stare that every parent reserves for such occasions. To his credit, Cooper made eye contact and seemed to listen.

Throughout the hour-and-a-half hearing, I felt a mix of emotions – anger, sadness, betrayal, disappointment and, surprisingly, pride. I was angry that Cooper could do this to SPJ, but also that he seemed smug and unremorseful. There was little evidence he had made any attempt to change his life and make this right. Instead, I heard a series of explanations and excuses, none of which helped to absolve his theft.

Cooper complained that he’d lost his career in journalism, and he was in a job that didn’t utilize his education and that required an hour commute each way. He blamed the state for allowing casinos, he complained he had other bills to pay besides SPJ (though his wife had bought a car since he pled guilty), and he brought up his autistic daughter’s need for stability several times. Cooper even recounted a story of having to cancel his family’s plans to attend a holiday party last year, because someone affiliated with the local chapter would also be in attendance. One of his daughters had bought a new dress for the party and was devastated she couldn’t attend the party because of her father. Looking past the complaints, I didn’t see a man willing to take responsibility for his behavior; I saw someone who wanted to place the blame elsewhere.

Based on both fact and emotion, I agree with the judge. I don’t see that Cooper has made a real attempt to transform his life, to show remorse or to make this situation right. Prior to yesterday, he made no attempt to repay the chapter and blamed the chapter’s lack of a response to his offer of monthly payments as his excuse for not having paid them anything. Despite his words, I saw no sign of remorse…fear maybe, but he wasn’t even resigned to the fact he was going to jail or would spend the next 10 years of his life working hard to pay the chapter back. He is sitting in jail this morning as I post this. Perhaps this will be the wake-up call he needs.

On the plus side, I was so proud to be an SPJ member and to serve the organization as president. Seeing how the local chapter worked together to right a wrong was inspiring. Accepting responsibility for their part in Cooper’s deception, board members combed through the bank records, check book and falsified treasurer’s reports to calculate the extent of the damage. They banded together to get through a difficult situation. Chapter president Jaclyn Cosgrove testified on the chapter’s behalf, and past and present board members including M. Scott Carter and Carol Cole-Frowe were in attendance.

I was also proud when the assistant DA, the chapter attorney and the judge all commented on the good work that SPJ does and how it is important to repay the money so the chapter can continue to provide education and training, offer scholarships and do journalism advocacy work.

Though a harsher sentence could have been imposed, I feel justice was done. For the next 10 years, Cooper will have to work incredibly hard to meet the court’s conditions or risk even harsher punishments. He will have to face himself every day and remind himself that this was a choice – his choice.

At the same time, the Oklahoma Pro SPJ chapter can rebuild and other SPJ chapters can learn from this experience. I hope Cooper can do the same with the second chance he has been given. It is up to him to decide what he does with it.

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Highlights thru Oct. 1

branding ironThe highlight of last week was, without a doubt, my trip to the Fort Worth to meet with members of the Fort Worth Pro SPJ chapter. They graciously hosted a “meet the president” event where they presented me with my very own branding iron and gave me the opportunity to update them on what’s new in SPJ along with my goals for the year. I also got the chance to visit with Carol Cole-Frowe, one of my favorite freelancers, and Eddye Gallagher, our region 8 director. Eddye and her husband Ed showed us around Fort Worth, including a number of historic sites.

But that was just a small portion of what SPJ accomplished last week. Here are a few other highlights:

Ethics: Posters and bookmarks of the new Ethics Code are ready to download. Hard copies will be back from the printer this week. In addition, members of the Ethics Committee have been doing media interviews, scheduling speaking engagements and preparing the supplemental documents that will sit “behind” the Code on SPJ.org to help explain and clarify some of the Code’s content.

Jennifer Royer, SPJ’s communications strategist, shared her communications plan with the national board to explain how SPJ will communicate the new Code to students, journalists, educators and the public. I did a media interview today with a student from American Journalism Review and will be speaking at Green River Community College on Oct. 4 to discuss the revised Code.

Communities: Carlos Restrepo of the International Journalism Community reached out to new members to ask for their ideas and goals. SPJ Digital held its first Google hangout with its leadership team to plan for the months ahead. SPJ Freelance continues to reach out to potential members. Gen J further explored the idea and benefits to becoming a community.

Journalism Advocacy: SPJ signed onto a letter to the U.S. Forest Service written by the NPPA to protest the need for permits in certain situations where newsgathering and photography may be done in the nation’s wilderness areas. Though the U.S. Forest Service has backed off on some of the original permitting provisions, the new language is vague, putting press freedom in danger. {SPJ.org will post a copy of the letter soon.}

Education: Members of SPJ staff and immediate past president Dave Cuillier attended ONA in Chicago last week to discuss partnerships and funding opportunities and to scout for programming ideas and speakers for future SPJ programming.

Member Engagement: Tuesday Taylor Carlier conducted a Twitter chat with the hashtag #youngjournojobs. She’s preparing a Storify of the event, so stay tuned for that on SPJ.org. Also, Tara Puckey is working with a group of SPJ members in Nebraska who don’t have a chapter. The group will host the region’s spring conference.

Diversity: A member of NAHJ staff reached out to me to see how he could help SPJ expand its base of diverse journalists. I will follow-up to see what types of partnerships we can forge with groups like NAHJ, NAJA, NABJ, NLGJA and others.

I’m sure I’ve missed some highlights. If I did, please email me or post in the comments section. Thanks for your support of SPJ!

~ Dana Neuts, President

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Highlights thru Sept. 15

With EIJ two weeks behind us now, things are slowing down a little bit, but the momentum that started at the convention is still going strong. Committees, communities and volunteers are hard at work, locally and nationally. Here are this week’s highlights:

Launch of International Journalism Community: Under the leadership of Carlos Restrepo of the St. Louis Pro chapter, the International Journalism Community was launched. To date, more than 30 journalists have expressed an interest in joining the community. Want to get involved? Email Carlos directly.

Volunteer of the Month: Last week, the Membership Committee named its volunteer of the month – Victor Hernandez of CNN, for overseeing Excellence in Journalism news at EIJ14. Guiding a team of 14 student interns, Hernandez selflessly shared his expertise. Thank you, Victor!

Journalism Education Committee: Butler Cain, assistant professor of West Texas A&M, and the Journalism Education committee are getting the year off to a good start, wrapping up the editing of a book on the state of high school journalism. I anticipate lots of great work coming out of that committee this year, so stay tuned!

Diversity Committee: Lead by chair April Bethea, the Diversity Committee has gotten off to an enthusiastic start. Read April’s blog post about the committee’s goals for the year.

Ethics Committee:  Committee chair Andrew Seaman and SPJ communications strategist Jennifer  Royer are working on a plan to publish, publicize and share the revised Code of Ethics. Late last week the final version went to the printers. Posters and bookmarks will be available soon.

Journalism Advocacy: SPJ issued a statement applauding the city of Tupelo, Mississippi for complying with open records laws. Though the laws have been in place since 1983, Tupelo is the first municipality in Mississippi to comply. Thanks to SPJ member and reporter Robbie Ward, staff writer for The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, for prodding the city to archive text messages and make them available to the public.

Journalism Advocacy: SPJ signed onto a letter by the American Association of Law Libraries to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Court urging them to restore electronic access to court records that were recently removed from PACER and a letter from the Reporters Committee to the DOJ for a dialogue following the media’s treatment in Ferguson.

Volunteer Outreach: Since EIJ14, I’ve been making calls to volunteers including new board members, committee chairs and community leaders to learn about their goals for the year and to thank them for their service. In addition, I have asked for a volunteer to help me support SPJ’s communities, including freelance, digital and international journalism. If you have an interest in working with me, please email me.

Board Training: Chapter coordinator Tara Puckey held the first of two sessions of board training via Skype to tell us more about our roles and responsibilities.

I’m traveling this weekend to meet with the Fort Worth Pro SPJ chapter for its annual “welcome the president” event. I will update you on this week’s highlights when I get back. Until then, thanks for your support of SPJ and journalism, and let me know how I can help.

~ Dana Neuts, SPJ President

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Cowboy Boots, Convos and the Code of Ethics

SPJ votes

SPJ delegates vote during the closing business session at EIJ14. Photo by Jeff Cutler.

I’m just returning home from a whirlwind trip to Nashville for the 2014 Excellence in Journalism conference, held in partnership with RTDNA. With more than 900 attendees in town to participate, there was a lot of fun to be had – but much serious business to be conducted as well.

From the CNN-sponsored kickoff at Wildhorse Saloon where we showed off our cowboy boots through the Sunday morning board meetings of SPJ and RTDNA, EIJ14 was action packed. In addition to programs, business meetings, super sessions and socials, SPJ highlights include:

–        The passage of a revised Code of Ethics, the first update since 1996, was one of the weekend’s biggest accomplishments. Passionately and sometimes heatedly discussed during an ethics town hall session and the closing business session, Ethics Committee members, interested SPJ members and chapter delegates worked together to hammer out details, making additional revisions, line edits and suggestions to ultimately come up with a document satisfactory to the majority of delegates. The new Code is a collaborative effort of those volunteers and the hundreds of folks who commented on the Code over the course of the last year.

The Code will never satisfy everyone, nor will it address every ethical issue we might be faced with. Rather it is a collective body of work that SPJ can be proud of. To keep the Code relevant and to provide guidance to those using or teaching the Code, the Ethics Committee will work on providing notes, position papers, links and other supplemental materials available online. Under the leadership of new committee chairman Andrew Seaman, the committee is already working on collecting and preparing those materials. This aggregation will be an ongoing process, and the committee will seek suggestions and input from SPJ’s 7,500+ members and anyone else who’d like to offer feedback. Click here to share your input with the committee.

–        Approval of an endowed “Forever Fund” to support SPJ’s advocacy efforts. Nicknamed by immediate past president Dave Cuillier the ‘Legal Offense Fund,’ this fund will initially be funded via the Legal Defense Fund. As our new FOI chair, Cuillier will lead the charge for SPJ advocacy and fundraising and creating an endowed fund. For more information on how this fund will work and how the money will be used, contact Dave Cuillier.

–        Hosting of a leadership summit with a dozen or so journalism groups including ACES, UNITY, NAHJ, NABJ, ONA, to name a few. Leaders of these organizations met at EIJ to discuss common challenges and synergies and how they can best utilize the strengths of individual member organizations as well as the group collectively. It was an inspiring meeting with a lot of positive discussion and suggestions for moving forward to better support journalists and journalism.

–        The proposal to change the name Society of Professional Journalists to Society for Professional Journalism was ultimately rejected by the delegates. Though the name change didn’t pass, it stimulated a good conversation about the future of SPJ and how we can remain relevant. A Futures Task Force was formed earlier this year by past president John Ensslin, and the task force submitted recommendations to the Executive Committee in June and to the full board last week. Some of the suggestions are already being implemented, and others are being fleshed out for viability, planning and implementation. Stay tuned for more on that!

–        Programs, super sessions and awards, oh my! You can’t talk about EIJ without talking about the great programming, including sessions featuring Michele Norris, SPJ’s newest fellow, Kara Swisher, lessons from Ferguson, narrative storytelling, freelance foul-ups, pushing for parity and more. In addition, EIJ14 held a number of awards ceremonies and honored individual journalists, media organizations, chapters and SPJ leaders. For highlights, visit the EIJ News site.

In the weeks and months ahead, I’ll write more about these topics. In the meantime, visit SPJ.org to stay up-to-day on Society news, watch your inbox for the weekly edition of Leads, and follow SPJ on social media (see SPJ.org’s home page for links). You can also contact me anytime with questions, concerns and ideas. My inbox is always open. Let me know how I can help.

~ Dana Neuts, SPJ President, 2014-2015

 

(Thanks to Jeff Cutler for letting me use this photo taken during the closing business session on Sept. 6, 2014.)

 

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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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