Archive for the ‘Legal Defense Fund’ Category


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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Looking back on “20 SPJ ideas” two years later

Two years ago while running for SPJ secretary-treasurer, I proposed an ambitious program called “20 ideas in 20 days.”

It represented my thinking back in 2010 on ways in which we could move SPJ forward.

I was careful to describe them as ideas rather than pledges or promises or a platform, because I know from experience that my ideas don’t always work.

I do believe, however, that it’s important to try and find ways to further the core missions of SPJ.

Recently Andy Schotz invited me to respond to his campaign post in which he listed 10 of the ideas I circulated two years ago in an abbreviated list.

First off, I’m honored that Andy took the time to remember and keep that document.

And I was curious to see how my ideas fared two years later now that I am approaching the end of my term as president.

So, here is a rather long post that recalls those 20 ideas, plus my evaluation on whether they worked.

1.    Quarterly board meetings. Two in person. Two by phone. More democracy, not less. We often end up doing telephone conferences calls during the year anyway, so why not do two that we could schedule in advance. True a conference call with the full board can be awkward at times, however, there are web conference programs available now that could make these sessions more efficient and interactive.

This definitely worked. We held five board meetings this year, two in person, two by conference call and then our first ever virtual board meeting. As a result, the board had a lot more input. Plus our in-person meetings were not as packed with what I call housekeeping matters, leaving us time to talk about larger policy issues.

2.    Use travelling programs such as Tom Hallman’s Narrative Writing Workshops as kindling for starting or reviving chapters. Schedule them in such a way as to help provide the spark to beef up or revive local chapters.  I realize this program is not aimed at membership recruitment. However, there’s nothing that prevents a local chapter from using the event as a catalyst for membership building. In New Mexico, the group that attended Tom’s workshop eventually formed half of the interim board of the newly revived chapter.

This idea worked well in New Mexico, where Tom’s appearance helped us revive the pro chapter. But it was difficult to replicate on the national level.  The funding for programs like Tom’s were not earmarked for membership development.

3.    National speakers’ office. Use the bulk power of SPJ to connect chapters with authors on tour, film previews, ect. If we do this with some regularity, eventually the speakers will come to us looking for venues and trying to connect with local chapters

This idea proved impractical. During the recession, many publishers cut back dramatically on author tours, making this practice harder to tap into

4.    Encourage chapters to use regional conferences as a way to draw in new members by pegging the price of the conference to one year’s membership. This year in Region 9, we made the price of conference registration $99 for non-member pros and $62 for non-member students. As a result, we ended with 47 new members in a single day. That represented an 8 percent increase in the region’s membership numbers. At this point in our history, after losing nearly 2,000 members nationwide, it seems to me wiser for chapters to be member-rich than dollar-rich.

While this idea worked very well in Region 9, it met with resistance elsewhere as many regions preferred, quite reasonably, to focus on posting a profit from their conference rather than gaining additional members.

5.    Shared use of iContact, Constant Contact or a similar bulk e-mail service so that chapters can communicate better. These programs are capable of allowing any chapter to produce crisp, graphically interesting e-mails that will help their message stand out from ordinary text e-mails.

This idea proved impractical.

6.    Fall and Spring membership drives with discounts and premiums. Let’s take a page from the perennially successful campaigns of public television and radio by concentrating our recruitment efforts to a 10-day period twice each year in which we offered premiums such as an SPJ mug or ball cap as a reward for joining during that time frame.

We were able to launch a membership drive this fall, but held it over the span of a month without the gimmicks of premiums.

7.    Set aside a room at the national convention to serve as “Studio SPJ,”a place where members could be asked to tape one-minute interviews stating why they joined and what SPJ means to them. Then post these videos on the website on a rotating basis.

This idea fell by the wayside, but I’d like to reserve the chance to try it at our 2013 convention in Anaheim.

8.    Present an annual award at the national conference for the fastest growing chapters, both pro and student. Honor both those chapters with the highest percentage increase (typically small to medium chapters) and the greatest numerical gain in members (typically the larger chapters.)

This idea also fell by the wayside, although I still believe it has merit.

9.    Appoint a programming czar to help chapters stage programs. Have that person create a programming committee with a representative in each region. This is a crucial step in growing membership since active quality programming goes hand in hand with membership recruitment and retention.

This idea is still a work in progress. I tried doing it through a 12-member committee last year, but that proved unwieldy and ineffective. This year, I’ve volunteered to serve in this national role and incoming President Sonny Albarado has given me the permission to do so. I’ll be working with SPJ staffer Tara Puckey to help bring programming to local chapters.

10.  Task the programming chair to attend the annual BookExpo America in New York City in late May. This event – which draws 500 authors and previews 1,500 books due out in the fall – would be a perfect opportunity for an SPJ representative to make contact with publishers and help line up author events with chapters nationwide.

Also in progress. I hope to attend the Expo this spring.

11.  Line up a journalism-themed movie premiere as SDX or LDF fundraiser. Over the last few years, there have been several popular feature films about journalists: George Clooney’s Murrow-biopic “Good Night and Good Luck” or Angelina Jolie’s “A Mighty Heart” about Daniel and Marianne Pearl. The next time such a movie comes down the pike, let’s approach the film makers about staging a benefit premiere in a city of their choice.

This idea failed, but not for lack of trying. I tried to convince the makers of “The Bang Bang Club,” a film on photojournalists covering the fall of apartheid in South Africa. But we couldn’t reach an agreement. I haven’t given up on this idea either and will keep an eye out for any new journalism movies.

12. Do an online auction in advance of the convention to raise money for LDF. Not only would enable people not attending the convention to bid on items, it would build interest in the live auction and help us increase the proceeds.

This proved impractical, however, I would still like to explore putting up some LDF items up for auction during the year via e-Bay.

13.  Volunteers are the glue that holds SPJ together. Honor their service with a monthly volunteer of the month program. Ask each regional director to nominate one person from their region and highlight that person’s accomplishments.

This idea worked quite well. We not only honored 12 volunteers across the county, two of them went on to win the Howard Dubin award for outstanding SPJ member.

14. Explore finding a service that would enable all regions and local chapters to convert their journalism contests to an online entry system. Currently, regions and chapters are being approached individually by such vendors. By aggregating our buying power, we could get a much more advantageous deal.

This idea morphed into marketing SPJ’s own awards platform, which we were able to sell to a few chapters and journalism organizations. This is still a work in progress.

15. Create An SPJ listening tour. One way for national SPJ leaders to get a feel for the issues affecting the organization is to listen in – when invited – to an occasional chapter board meeting that are conducted by telephone conference call. Just to listen, not to meddle or talk.

This idea worked although I modified it a little bit. I hosted a series of virtual town hall meetings with 11 of our 12 regions and hope to do one final session later this month. While none of these drew large audiences, each once sparked worthwhile conversations that I found quite useful.

16. Candidate’s forum. Instead of forcing national board candidates to dash to 12 regional meetings in an hour at the convention, why not hold a candidate’s forum earlier in the day where people can ask questions of the candidates in a town hall-like forum.

This idea was rendered somewhat moot by the adoption of the one-member, one-vote system this year. However, I was able to do a version of these forums during the above mentioned town hall meetings.

17.  Vox Pop. Use the Democracy function on our WordPress blog software to put an occasional question to the membership. While this method is hardly scientific, it would give SPJ’s leadership a quick take on what members think and show a willingness to listen to the membership.

This idea worked very well. I included polls at the end of several columns I posted on the Freedom of the Prez blog.

18.  Survey new members on what led them to join. In recent years, we’ve done some careful research on why people drop out of SPJ and who they are. But we’ve not devoted as much attention to where our new members are coming from. What specific things convinced them to join. The more we know about this the better we’ll get at recruitment.

This idea worked. I did my own email survey of new members who joined SPJ this spring. The results made it clear that we enjoyed a spike of new members who joined to get the member rate in our Mark of Excellence journalism contest.

19. Sponsor international journalists. Every Spring, the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship places about 10-12 young journalists from countries with an emerging free press into newsrooms across the United States. What if we made a concerted effort to invite these folks to be our guests at various regional conferences? Many of them practice journalist at considerable more peril than we do. They would learn a lot about SPJ and perhaps make excellent speakers.

This idea worked, albeit in a limited manner. Two international journalists attended a regional conference in San Diego and had a great experience. A decrease in funding with the Friendly Fellowship program made it difficult to arrange more of these opportunities.

20. Hold a half-day summit during the Spring board meeting to help draft a national membership recruitment and retention strategy. Task the membership committee to come up with several proposals to that end and then try to do what we can on the national level to see that those suggestions are carried out.This idea proved impractical. I relied instead on our membership committee to vet and develop strategies for growing the membership.

So by my count, that adds up to

8 ideas that worked, in full or part.

8 ideas that failed or proved impractical.

4 ideas that are still a work in progress.

In baseball, going 8 for 20 would be considered a good stretch.

But I’m actually just as interested in the ideas that failed. Frequently those failures lead to other more successful approaches that we would not have reached if we hadn’t at least tried.

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Unconventional convention coverage

This weekend, I’ll be giving a talk in Charlotte, North Carolina to a group of journalists who will be covering the Democratic National Convention there on September 3-6.

I’m no expert, but I have covered three national political conventions. In 1980 I covered the Republican National Convention in Detroit when Ronald Reagan was nominated. I also covered the Democratic National Convention in New York City when President Jimmy Carter was the nominee.

Then in 2008, I was part of a team that covered the Democratic National Convention for The Rocky Mountain News.

Here are a few lessons I learn from those experiences.

1. Think Big. At the Rocky my editor assigned me one big topic: race.

During Barack Obama’s historic campaign, race was one of those big lurking topics that surfaced over and over again.

So I spent time leading up to the convention interviewing people in settings as various as an African-American barber shop to an Ethiopian restaurant where many of the city’s cab drivers hung out.

I even found a German scholar visiting Denver that summer whose specialty was the American civil rights movement.

So don’t be afraid of tackling large topics as a mini-beat during a convention. Perhaps it could be immigration or the Tea Party or income equality. You’ll be surprised how far this approach can take you.

2. Don’t overemphasize the obvious stories like traffic or parking problems. Cover them sure, but don’t lose track of the big picture. I think back to how news coverage of the Woodstock music festival focused mostly on traffic jams, permits and Port-O-Potties. Not many reporters grasped the cultural significance of what they were seeing, not until much later.

3. Designate a Wild Card reporter. Every day will deal at least one completely unexpected good story. Plan on it by designating a reporter and a spot on your budget.

4. You can’t start too early. At the Rocky, our coverage plan started very early that year. It’s not too late though to do great work in advance of the convention.

5. Think beyond the printed page or the broadcast.. A national political convention generates more stories and content than you can’t possibly fit into the print edition or a broadcast, even with a generous news hole or time frame. Use your web-only space to the maximum to capture all these stories. Doing so will make your print edition or your broadcast even better and the readers/viewers will be thankful.

6. Be careful what you tweet. Social media was still relatively new in 2008 when the Rocky decided to run a stream of reporters tweets live on the web page. This worked out fine until one reporter, thinking he was tweeting a friend, used an expletive. There was no way to remove it, so the editors told all of us “Tweet something.” That way the offending tweet quick moved down stream and out of view.

7. Keep your skepticism alive. Question stories just like you would any other day of the year. In 2008, I covered a press conference where police announced they had arrested three men on drug and gun charges in a case with “federal implications.” A local television station reported that police had arrested the men in connection with an alleged plot to kill Obama.  That seemed like a huge story at the time, but as it turned out, federal authorities knocked down the story. This only became apparent through persistent questioning that evening.

8. Tap your sister news organizations. In Denver, the Scripps newspapers from around the country provided additional reporters who help supplement our coverage. That made a big difference.

9. Go remote. Sometimes the best stories are far from the convention floor. For example, when Obama gives his speech in the stadium, I was watching it in the living room of an elderly African-American woman who told me she never thought she would live to see that day.

10. Expect the unexpected.  One night during the convention, I was driving back to the office when I pulled behind an odd looking police patrol car. At first I thought it was one of the other agencies that were helping Denver out that week.

But then I noticed the motto on the side of the patrol car “To Serve and Project.” The windows on the back seat of the vehicle were actually video images by a conceptual artist who was trying to make a statement about immigration enforcement. I followed the car until it parked, then interviewed the driver and got a great story. Conventions are chock full of such stories.

11. Stay frosty. Conventions in recent years are mostly scripted and staged to death. But occasionally, the unexpected happens as it did in Detroit in 1980 when Reagan made a last minute decision to name George Bush as his vice-president.

I remember watching Walter Mears of the Associate Press writing fluidly through all that tumult in the smooth clear prose that made him a great reporter. When events get crazy, try to channel your inner Walter Mears.

12. Have fun. Conventions are about the most fun you can have as a journalist and still get paid for it. Go to the parties. Take in the spectacle. Work hard crazy hours but relish every minute of every long day and night.

I also asked two friends who covered the convention in Denver for the Rocky in Denver for their advice.

Sara Burnett is an excellent reporter who now works for the Denver Post and will be covering the conventions again this year. Here are some of her recommendations:

1. Wear comfortable shoes. Seems trivial, but when I think back on the 2008 conventions in Denver, a handful of memories stand out: Traveling with the Obama campaign from Montana to Denver on the campaign plane, having a prime seat to watch him make history at Invesco Field at Mile High, and the long, hot and painful walk to the Pepsi Center on the first day of the convention. I thought my sandals were comfy enough. Which would have been true if there had been any kind of transportation available. But every shuttle was full and every cab taken. So I walked, with what felt like a 20-pound laptop bag in 100 degree heat. By the time I got through security and to our workspace I wanted to cry because my feet hurt so bad. So wear comfortable shoes.

2. Have clear delineations of work. We split up the teams of reporters to include: The presidential candidate; the VP candidate; the “other candidate” (Hillary Clinton); the Colorado delegation; the parties, concerts and celebrities; fundraising and fundraisers; protestors; police; Republican response and economic impact on your city (to name a few). Know in advance what each person is supposed to do but also be ready to be flexible, and have a few people who are there to cover whatever breaks that you didn’t expect.

3. Don’t be overly focused on the convention hall. Many of the best stories don’t happen during the highly scripted made-for-TV evening programming. In 2008 I went to a really interesting Q&A with David Plouffe that happened in the middle of the afternoon, for example. Another big story for us was a mass arrest of some protesters.

4. Get to know the sources you’re going to be covering well in advance and have a database of their cell phone numbers, etc., so you can reach them easily and so that you can be sure they will return your calls when you need them to. There will suddenly be national news outlets and the Anderson Coopers of the world there – and if something huge happens, people’s natural instinct is to talk to the reporters/anchors they see on TV before they talk to you. Having a relationship with them before the convention starts will help get that return call.

4. Have alternate forms of communication. Especially in or near the convention hall you may have cellphone reception problems. have a laptop or ipad or whatever else you need ready in case your phone doesn’t work.

5. Go to some parties. As journalists in a host city, by the time the convention finally starts, 90 percent of your work has already been done. So don’t let the craziness of that week overwhelm you. You will be tired but you should be sure to go to some parties. Develop some new sources (or improve relationships with existing ones). Meet people you’ve always wanted to meet. And have some fun.

Next, here is some sage advice from M.E. Sprenglemeyer, another excellent Rocky alum who now owns and edits a weekly paper in New Mexico.

ME did some extraordinary reporting during the last presidential campaign. He took the bold innovative step of moving out of DC where he served as the Rocky’s Washington correspondent and move to Iowa for the year.

It provided him with invaluable insight into the campaign as well as access to the candidates.

ME’s basic advice to reporters covering this convention is this: think unconventionally. Here are a couple of his   suggestions as well as an observation of my own.

1. Think outside your Rolodex. One of the things that made ME’s pre-convention coverage brilliant was the way in which he expanded the pool of people he interviewed well beyond the conventional cast.

No where was this more apparent in a series of 10 stories he wrote for the Rocky called “Unconventional Wisdom,”

The frame of the story was simple yet large: interview people, famous and obscure from previous Democratic conventions for their insights and advice to  the current candidates. (Remember this was when Hillary Clinton  and Barack Obama were in close competition.)

2. Look for the not-so-obvious people. One of ME’s favorite stories from this series was his profile of a soldier whom Obama cited in a pivotal speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Click here for a link to that story:

It turns out that Obama kept in touch with that soldier, Seamus Ahern, long after the convention and got a fair amount of his information about the war from that exchange.

So look for that person who is “one off” the principal newsmakers and don’t be surprised if you find a great story.

3. It’s not too late. Many of you have been planning for the DNC for over a year. With the convention now just over a month away, you can’t do some of the things ME did in the lead up to the 2004 convention.

But there is still time to do these projects. Perhaps a single story interviewing people from past convention. Or perhaps focus on one convention that seems relevant to this race. ME is convinced he could start work on Monday on a story like this and have it done in time for Sept. 3.

Credentialed journalists are assigned to a coveted bit of real estate, a place to write their stories. But spend as little time there as possible. Don’t be a spectator to the same event that every other journalist in the room is watching.

5. Avoid writing anything that a person watching the convention can get by watching television. Your readers/viewers expect something more from you. There are so many stories at a convention. Find one that the national networks overlooked. Give people something they didn’t see.

6. Analyze the Speech. To prepare for covering Obama’s acceptance speech, ME watched and read several decades worth of acceptance speeches from past convention.

Presidential campaign speech writers are a small fraternity. They are a bit like film makers or jazz musicians in the way they borrow riffs from one another. It’s not plagiarism so much as paying homage to great speeches of the past.

By doing this advance research, ME was able to deliver on deadline a crisp analysis story that pointed out those allusions to speeches by other candidates.

7. Find a green delegate. Many news organizations do mini-profiles of the delegates from their coverage area. This is a sound practice. But ME suggests going one step further: focus on seeing the convention through the eyes of a first-time delegate. They are more likely than most to retain a sense of wonder about the convention. This is a valuable point of view to explore.

Finally, here is some advice from my friend Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.

Mickey is a photo-journalist turned lawyer who has done yeoman’s work this year representing journalist who were arrested or detained  while doing their jobs covering various Occupy street demonstrations this year.

If you are covering protests outside the convention hall, here are links Mickey offers with some practical suggestions for journalists trying to cover the story and not become part of it.

NPPA list of resources regarding rights: https://www.nppa.org/member_services/advocacy/restrictions_on_public_photography.html

CPJ blog on what to know regarding covering conventions: http://cpj.org/security/2012/07/what-to-know-““about-covering-the-conventions.php

RCFP hotline: http://www.rcfp.org/reporters-committee-announces-political-convention-g-8-hotlines-journalists

RCFP new app: http://www.rcfp.org`/reporters-committee-launches-rcfp-firstaid-mobile-app-reporters

If you are arrested in the line of duty,  Mickey will be here in Charlotte to represent journalists if they do get in trouble for doing their job.

Keep in mind also that SPJ has a Legal Defense Fund that can make grants of up to $1,000 toward the legal defense of people who are arrested in the course of covering a story. Here is a link to our LDF website:

 

 

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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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The state of SPJ – remarks to the Greater Charlotte chapter

While the SPJ Executive Committee visited with members of our Greater Charlotte chapter in North Carolina on Jan. 27, I gave a talk on the State of the Society.

Below is a copy of my remarks (although not an exact transcript.) Or watch the video, uploaded by the Charlotte chapter:

I’d like to take a moment here to share a few thoughts on the state of SPJ — on where we are and where we’re going.

First off, tonight we’ve reached another milestone in SPJ’s long and storied history. We’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of Quill, our signature magazine.

What started as a fraternity newsletter in January 1912 has evolved into an outstanding magazine that helps our members stay current with what going on in journalism and within the Society.

And think about it. How many magazines in America have survived a century or more? Well, there’s Scientific American at 167 years old and Harper’s at 162. But there aren’t a lot more, and as I like to tell our editor, Scott, we’re older than Time.

The pages of Quill tell the history of journalism in America, and later this year, we’re going tap into some of the magazine’s images to tell our history as well. SPJ member Jennifer Peebles is building an interactive timeline of significant events in SPJ history. So, watch for that.

Looking ahead in that history, I’m hoping we can increase our online version of Quill so it’s something members can turn to every day instead of six times a year.

SPJ has a long history of advocating for journalists and the public’s right to know, and this year that has certainly been true. We protested the arrests of several journalists who were wrongfully detained or arrested while covering various “Occupy” demonstrations across the county.

We’ve committed $1,000 from our Legal Defense Fund for a freelance photojournalist who was arrested while covering an Occupy Wall Street demonstration.

We’ll continue to fight these good fights and to stand with journalists who are in that often lonely place of taking fire for simply doing their jobs.

Another thing SPJ is known for is its ethics code, which some folks have called the gold standard for our industry.

Last year, we reached an important goal with the publication of the 4th edition of a textbook of ethics case studies. This year, we’re taking that a step further by writing a series of white papers on various ethics topics.

I’d urge you to take a look at these essays. They are posted on our website, spj.org. They show that for us, journalism ethics is not just a textbook on a shelf, but an on-going set of values that are useful when doing our jobs every day.

SPJ is also about to do something we’ve never done before: be a landlord.

Thanks to some hard work by our Executive Director, Joe Skeel, we are on the verge of signing a lease with a global recruitment firm that wants to rent the underutilized second floor of our headquarters in Indianapolis.

This will require us to invest some funds into renovating that part of the building, but in the long run, it will create a new stream of revenue.

Now you would be right to ask: What does this have to do with journalism? Nothing really. But at time when other journalism organizations are struggling just to stay afloat, we’re doing something that will help stabilize SPJ’s finances and ensure our future.

And finally, I have some good news about SPJ’s membership.

For the first time since 2008, we are starting the year with more members than we had the year before. Not a lot — just about 200 to 300 more — but it has been that way consistently for more than two months.

Part of that increase may be due to an increase in the number of entries were seeing for our annual Mark of Excellence college journalism awards.  But I think some of the credit also goes to our membership committee, which has been reaching out to lapsed members and talking them into sticking with SPJ.

I hope you’ll help us continue to build on this small trend. I’m asking that every chapter, student and pro, do one membership-building event in the month of March.

We’re calling it our own March Membership Month. You’ll be hearing more about it in the next few weeks, and when you do, please do what you can to ensure that our Society continues to grow in the year ahead.

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Thoughts on arrests of journalists simply doing their jobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SPJ committees at work: The year ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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