Archive for the ‘SPJ Missions’ Category

Talking free speech from outside a ‘free-speech zone’

OK. I understand a university’s need to curb “disruptive behavior.” So I suppose it’s acceptable to tell someone using a bullhorn near classrooms that he should stop doing so.

But it’s outrageous and downright asinine to come back later and tell that same person he not only can’t stand on a taxpayer-funded sidewalk at a taxpayer-funded institution of higher education and talk to fellow students but has to get a permit to talk in a “free-speech zone.”

That’s how I feel after reading this report from the Student Press Law Center about an incident at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta.

If the report is accurate, the administration acted ham-handedly and with censorship in mind.

I’ll be investigating further in hopes there’s more to this than meets the eye.

My opinions are my own until I tell you otherwise.

– Sonny Albarado, free speech advocate.


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On “illegal alien/immigrant”

I have to admit to being skeptical last year when controversy broke out over Leo Laurence’s column in SPJ’s Quill magazine on use of the phrase “illegal immigrant.”

I’ve certainly used it many times over the last decade in keeping with guidelines spelled out in the Associated Press Stylebook.

Here’s what the AP Stylebook (2006 edition) has to say about the term: “Illegal Immigrant – Used to describe those who have entered the country illegally. It is the preferred term rather than illegal alien or undocumented worker.”

Sometimes I’ve also used the term “undocumented immigrant.” While looking back at stories written by my colleagues, I found plenty of instances where both terms were used in immigration-related stories.

Less common was use of the term “illegal alien.” Webster’s Dictionary still includes the secondary definition of alien as “a foreign-born resident who has not been naturalized and is still a subject or citizen of a foreign country.”

But that usage seems antique now. Science fiction movies and television programs like “The X-Files” have rendered the more common use of the word to refer to an extra-terrestrial — the third meaning listed in Webster’s.

So when the issue came up last week at the SPJ convention in the form of a resolution, I still wasn’t entirely convinced of the need to question use of the term “illegal immigrant.”

Others who shared my skepticism questioned the resolution’s wording.

Then Rebecca Aguilar got up to speak.

Rebecca is a member of SPJ’s Fort Worth Pro chapter. She attended the convention this year as one of six diversity fellows, a program that has been a valuable asset to the Society by ensuring that underrepresented voices are heard in debates like this one.

After receiving permission to speak as a non-delegate, Rebecca told voting delegates how she is the daughter of undocumented immigrants.

She talked about how her mother reads the Toledo Blade* every day and later became a U.S. citizen. Her mother believes in the work that journalists like her daughter do and its importance to society, Rebecca said.

But it pains her mom whenever she sees the term “illegal alien” in the newspaper.

“Every time you use the words ‘illegal alien,’ you insult my mother,” Rebecca told the delegates. “‘Alien’ is an ugly word.”

You could feel the whole debate start to shift as she sat down. I know I was moved. A short time later, the delegates approved the resolution by a resounding voice vote.

My gripe with the term “illegal immigrant” is not the phrase itself, but with the loose and imprecise way that it is applied.

I’ve had the experience of covering large scale immigration arrests at a meat packing plant or vehicle accidents where large numbers of people are arrested.

It’s not uncommon, however, for authorities to release several people the next day after determining that indeed they had papers. To call these people “illegal” is sloppy and inaccurate.

My concern is not one of being politically correct as it being precise and accurate.

When police arrest someone on a burglary charge, we don’t refer to them the next day as “illegal burglars.” They are burglary suspects.

I don’t see why we can’t treat immigration cases like any other arrests. A person under arrest is suspected of entering the country illegally until authorities are in fact sure that they did.

It’s worth noting that while the resolution (full wording below) urges journalists to stop using the term “illegal alien,” it stopped short of asking them not to use the term “illegal immigrant.”

Instead, it simply encourages “continuous discussion and re-evaluation of the use of ‘illegal immigrant’ in news stories.”

That seems like a healthy idea to me.

I’m curious about what you think. Please take a moment to respond to the poll at the end of this column.

Here is the resolution approved at the convention:

WHEREAS, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics urges all journalists to be “honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information” and;

WHEREAS, mainstream news reports are increasingly using the politically charged phrase “illegal immigrant” and the more offensive and bureaucratic “illegal alien” to describe undocumented immigrants, particularly Latinos and;

WHEREAS, a fundamental principle embedded in our U.S. Constitution is that everyone (including non-citizens) is considered innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law and;

WHEREAS, this constitutional doctrine, often described as “innocent-until-proven-guilty,” applies not just to U.S. Citizens but to everyone in the United States and;

WHEREAS, only the court system, not reporters and editors, can decide when a person has committed an illegal act and;

WHEREAS, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists is also concerned with the increasing use of pejorative and potentially inaccurate terms to describe the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States;

THEREFORE, be it resolved that the Society of Professional Journalists convention of delegates: urges 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.

* In fairness to the Blade, the term “illegal immigrant” is used far more often that “illegal alien” judging by a search of the paper’s website, although examples of both can be found.





Should reporters covering immigration stories use the word:
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“First they came…” A Modern-Day Witch Hunt

I’m arming myself with some super-thick skin for the slings and arrows sure to follow. These words will result in my being called names from “sympathizer” to “traitor” to “un-American” and worse.

But I can’t stay silent any more.

For those of you who disagree — and isn’t it wonderful that we can do so freely and (hopefully) with mutual respect? — I will make it clear from the beginning that this blog post is my personal opinion, not a Society statement.

I just can’t stand by without lamenting what I see as a dangerous slippery slope that many of us are sidestepping in the name of patriotism or political correctness.

Julian Assange is no more a spy than my 77-year-old lifelong stay-at-home mother. I may disagree with his methods and philosophy, and I certainly would never publish information that would risk life or country. I know of no professional journalist who would. I am no apologist for Assange or WikiLeaks. As a journalist I have deep concerns about motivation, as I do for every source on every story.

But to call for his arrest? His execution? To charge another country’s citizen with treason to the United States? First it’s Assange, next it’s the New York Times, next it’s you or me, if we don’t toe the line on an increasingly McCarthyistic spiraling chain of events.

I’m a patriotic citizen. I’ve missed few elections in my adult life. I believe democracy represents the best governmental model. But we only feed the conspiracy theorists when a) a Swedish prosecutor drops two rape cases for lack of evidence; b) word leaks of the impending WikiLeaks data disclosures; c) a prosecutor in a different Swedish jurisdiction whose biography (according to press reports) says she specializes in “extradition work” resurrects the rape charges; d) the UK’s Independent reports “informal discussions have already taken place between U.S. and Swedish officials” over the possibility of extraditing Assange.

Under what charges? If treason doesn’t hold up, our sage leaders have come up with a cleverly worded proposed new law, the Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination Act. I’m sure it’s a coincidence for the acronym to be the SHIELD Act. Not to be confused with the barely-on-life-support proposed federal Shield law that journalism groups including SPJ have been pushing hard the past two years. It would grant reporters the right to protect anonymous sources except on matters that endanger national security. That bill, passed overwhelmingly by voice vote in the House, has twisted in the wind after select senators refused to allow a vote on their floor. Now rather than a shield law to protect journalists and their sources, we get a proposed SHIELD Act that threatens our work and workers instead.

Make no mistake. The SHIELD Act, which labels anyone who disseminates classified information as a “transnational threat”, doesn’t just target the Julian Assanges of this world. That language includes anyone, source or journalist included, who publishes information the government classified, even with no national or personal security threat. Elsberg, Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee? All criminals. Some of those involved with the Valerie Plame mess might watch their backs. As should thousands of reporters and publishers who challenge some of what the government classifies merely to avoid embarrassment. And the thousands of bloggers who then re-publish. Even grandma who then emails her family repeating such information could be guilty of dissemination.

I’m reminded of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s oft-quoted passage regarding those who watched silently as the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s and 1940s. “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

I’m speaking up. Already the SHIELD Act has expanded the list of classified information it would be considered criminal to publish. That list is sure to widen with time and with silence. The only shield this law would provide is one for government officials to hide increasing amounts of information from its citizens.

Mark as “Exhibit One” Sen. Joe Lieberman’s call on the Justice Department to investigate the New York Times for publishing articles based on the leaked cables. The Senate Homeland Security chairman called the stories “at least an act of bad citizenship” and possibly “a crime.” The only crime would have occurred if the Times had not vetted, confirmed, and then published information in the public interest that doesn’t endanger lives. That would have been bad citizenship and an abdication of the paper’s duty to serve as a watchdog, as set forth by our Founding Fathers.

I found it the ultimate in Orwellian-style double-speak to hear the same State Department spokesman who denounced Assange one day, announce the next day that the United States would be hosting the 2011 UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, claiming an “enduring commitment” to “the free flow of information in this digital age.” In the same breath, P.J. Crowley said, “New media has empowered citizens around the world” and “We are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals.”

That only works if the majority of individuals stay silent themselves.

Hagit Limor, an investigative reporter at WCPO-TV, is the 2010-11 SPJ President.

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The Helen Thomas decision

Few moments in a journalist’s career are more challenging than the times when cherished professional principles are called into question. The exception may be when our journalistic principles run headlong into our personal ones and tug at our moral fabric.

Such was the case over the weekend when the executive board of the Society of Professional Journalists met at it annual summer gathering and faced down an agenda item listed under new business as item “e. The Helen Thomas Award.”

The issue before us was whether we should retain Thomas’ name on our lifetime achievement award in light of her ridiculous and offensive remarks regarding Jews, saying they need to leave Israel and return to homelands of Germany, Poland and the United States. Those remarks cost her a job and disenfranchised her from a number of people and organizations with whom she was associated. Those remarks came in late spring. What SPJ would do wouldn’t be decided until late July in New Orleans.

From the day she uttered her now-famous words, the press wanted to know SPJ’s stance. Let me correct that. Some wanted to know. Most wanted to tell us. Because I felt this organization needed to carefully and judiciously consider this issue, I said from Day One we’d not rush to judgment. But the public did and so did some of our members.  A number of you weighed in on the issue in the weeks leading up to the board meeting and your voices were compiled and available to the board before the meeting.

Most of you provided thoughtful comments. Some made threats to leave the organization if we moved to change the award. Some chastised us for thinking someone so caustic and bigoted should have her named aligned with such an honorable journalism group.

Initially, a motion was made not to change the name and it received a second. What I’d call and very respectful and professional discussion ensued. Everyone had something to contribute. The executive board considered sending the matter to a vote of the full board. There was talk about a resolution before the October convention where sitting delegates could cast the deciding vote. After sharing views for nearly an hour and reflecting on it more personally over lunch, the board decided to take no action, and as such, the award is unchanged. But, as I see it, no action denies Thomas any votes of support from SPJ exec board members.

Personally, this was a tough call.  When I initially considered her remarks, I immediately fell into my First Amendment defense posture. SPJ has spent more than 100 years defending free press and free speech issues. How, after a long-established commitment, even in support of gravely offensive language, could we turn our backs on our principles to punish Thomas for her insensitive comments?

But, the more I thought about it, the more I opened up to other perspectives. As president elect Hagit Limor (an Israeli-born Jew whose father escaped from Germany and survived the Holocaust) said “this isn’t just about free speech rights. It’s about rewarding this kind of language and behavior.” In short, she can say what she wants and be defended, but she doesn’t have to be rewarded with such an important award.

Had Thomas said all black people should go back to Africa, there’s a very good chance this decision would have been made a lot sooner and with a different outcome. I feel confident in saying that.

Many who defended her name on the award made convincing arguments that our award speaks to her work as a journalist, not her personal views, and it’s unfair to throw out five decades of stellar professional journalism over this one incident. The award bears her name and lifetime achievement because it reflects the body of her long and illustrious career. And, quite honestly, that’s a valid argument and I respect it.

In the end, the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award was moved to “old business.” But dealing with bigotry needs to reflect a “new business” mentality. SPJ has three foundational missions – free press, ethics and diversity. If we are to live up to our mission of promoting diversity, it seems counterproductive to allow these very types of words and thoughts to be associated with our organization and, in part, define us. Regardless of her lifetime of achievements, Thomas needs to be mindful that her remarks have no place among people and her brethren whose obligations are to truth and fairness.

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It’s a great time to be in SPJ

One of the nicest byproducts of being the SPJ president is getting a chance to meet up with all the regional directors, student representatives, campus advisers at-large and at-large members over a board table three times a year to conduct Society business.

I really enjoy meeting everyone, and having stolen moments here and there to talk about what’s happening at the chapter and regional levels of SPJ. I learn a great deal and I’m pleased to say that a great deal is going on to improve SPJ that has nothing to do with me. And, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Last week at our annual spring board meeting in Indianapolis, the national board dealt with the following:

  • We welcomed new student chapters at Kennesaw State University, Texas A&M, DePaul and Central Connecticut State.
  • We also granted initial approval of what is expected to be our first official international chapter in Qatar. Northwestern University’s Medill School is proposing a student chapter that could balloon to 80 members. Obviously, we are excited about the prospects of new members, new chapter and dipping our organizational toe in the international arena.
  • Conversely, we agreed to hold off on revoking charters of some professional and student chapters that have been inactive for a few years. The reason is we want the regional directors to work with the Membership Committee to see if we can inject some needed infusion into them before they leave the rolls. It’s much harder to start one from scratch than to regain members.
  • The Membership Committee will begin calling new and renewed members each week. A group of executive officers, Regional Directors and former presidents will make calls on behalf of SPJ, thanking the members for renewing or starting a membership with our organization.
  • Additionally, the Membership Committee will be working with staff in the coming weeks to produce a variety of fliers, posters and brochure covers that are universally applicable to SPJ chapter events. The idea is that this will allow chapters to go to the website, download pdfs of a poster or flier and add their local information and print them off for upcoming events.
  • The board learned of the varied relationships SPJ has established with RTDNA, CPJ, IFJ and others for the betterment of journalism. As many of you know, SPJ will be partnering with the Radio Television Digital News Association for our 2011 convention in New Orleans. Our relationships with The Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists are in the early stages, but allow SPJ to have a growing presence in the international journalism frontier. SPJ also partners with the Online News Association, the American Society of News Editors and other groups as part of its convention programming and exhibitions.
  • The latest ethics book is slated to be distributed in early October, hopefully in time for the convention in Las Vegas. The book is the three-year project of the ethics committee.
  • A generous donation of $65,000 from the estate of Utah’s Alexander S. Bodi to the SDX Foundation. The money was then appropriated to the Terry Harper Memorial Fund. Terry and the donor became friends in their last years and we think this is a perfect use of the money. This will allow SPJ to offer about $5,000 a year in scholarships each year for journalists wanting to attend the national convention.
  •  The board agreed to extend the six-month hardship/transitional dues waiver for journalists who have lost their jobs.

All in all, this was a great meeting and a number of exciting initiatives and projects are being accomplished. I’m happy to say that SPJ is weathering the industry turmoil well and in the coming months we think we will: See membership numbers start ticking upward; Produce a healthy and exciting response to an FCC call for comment on the future of journalism; And we will finish the last of our spring conferences next week and likely surpass the 1,400 mark of journalists in attendance nationwide at our 12 spring conference.

It’s a great time to be in SPJ. Just thought you should know.

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What have we done for journalism lately?

Sometimes, as a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, you might get questions about our organization from fellow journalists who are non-members. The questions are usually ones wondering why they should join and what does SPJ really do?

If you have received that kind of question lately chances are you point to our stellar work for a free press, our outstanding ethical contributions, our work on behalf of diversity and our far-reaching and helpful professional development.

But, let me provide you with a few real-time examples of why SPJ is important and what we do invaluable in the grand scheme of protecting and improving journalism.

Here’s what SPJ has done in the last month:

We took NBC News to task for providing a very generous gift of a private jet ride from Brazil to the U.S. for a father and his son in exchange for an exclusive interview. NBC has taken exception with our characterization of this event. They said it was a simple act of kindness shown to Mr. David Goldberg and his son following a long and expensive custody battle over several years, which NBC covered extensively. The fact that NBC admitted to having done nearly 18 interviews with Mr. Goldman and that their viewers had developed a relationship with the family and viewers had come to expect this relationship via NBC means nothing when they offered him the private ride in exchange for an exclusive, an NBC spokesperson said.

We said otherwise and called it “checkbook journalism” and we contend it’s wrong. Just like it was for CNN to buy photos and an exclusive interview with Dutch passenger Jasper Schuringa who helped subdue the would-be Christmas Day plane bomber in Detroit.

The NBC story got a lot of traction and more than three dozen outlets by my last count reported SPJ’s condemnation of NBC’s exclusive buy.

This week, in a trifecta defense of the First Amendment, we threw our support behind a reporter in St. Louis who was arrested for standing on a sidewalk interviewing people and videotaping police break up a protest outside a local high school.

Steve Wagman, a veteran of the Post-Dispatch, as far as we can tell from the video and reports, did nothing more than stand his ground and defend his right to be there reporting the story. He wasn’t belligerent or in any way interfered with the police doing their job. They said differently and arrested him. SPJ backed Wagman and sent a letter to officials asking for charges to be dropped.

The next day we stood behind a group of Northwestern students who are being subpoenaed by a Cook County prosecutor who wants everything from their reporting notes to their course grades. Students in a class for the Medill Innocence Project helped gather enough evidence through reporting to show a convicted man was wrongfully charged with a crime. In return for their work, some of the same prosecutors who convicted the man are now trying to bully and discredit the students and are using strong-arm tactics to get their information and make them talk in court.

SPJ, along with a number of other media organization and outlets, took a firm stand and filed an amicus brief in the Chicago judicial system this week, asking that all charges and prosecution stop.

As if that wasn’t enough, SPJ sent a letter to Congress Tuesday calling on leaders to exercise an open-door policy when it comes to debating the health care reform bill. C-SPAN has been locked out of government proceedings and the largest financial commitment by the U.S. government in our history is being shaped behind closed doors. We adamantly protested this and called on Congress and the Administration to open the doors to the behind-the-scenes discussion and let the American public really see and learn what is taking place on this landmark legislation.

So, in a matter of two weeks, we slapped a journalism organization for an ethical transgression, stood behind a falsely accused reporter trying to cover a story, filed legal papers in support of journalism students whose work has brought them vindication from authorities and demanded more transparency in our government.

Not a bad couple of weeks. Defending the free press and the public’s right to know isn’t just noble talk. It really takes place within SPJ and it’s what makes us a proud and effective group that has lasted 100 years and earned us more than 8,000 members.

The next time someone asks what SPJ does for journalism, start your response with “Where would you like me to begin?”

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