Archive for the ‘SPJ’ Category


Highlights thru Dec. 4, 2014

Hello, all. It has only been a few weeks since I posted the last update, but we’ve accomplished so much that it is almost baffling. I am so proud of SPJ staff and volunteers for their hard work and dedication to the cause. Here are some of the projects we’ve been involved in over the last few weeks (you might want to pull up a chair – there is a lot of good stuff here!):

  • Community elections for SPJ Digital & Freelance were launched. Details here.
  • SPJ Georgia attended two separate hearings of Atlanta journalists who were arrested last week during the Ferguson protest. Charges have been dropped in both cases. Reps from SPJ Georgia plan to attend a roundtable discussion tomorrow with Atlanta PD. Thanks to SPJ Georgia for staying on top of this issue and keeping us informed!
  • We sent a letter to the EPA protesting the limitations put on scientists, preventing them from speaking directly with the media:
  • Alex Veeneman was named our first community coordinator to help me manage the workload. Thank you, Alex, for stepping up! Alex is the current leader of SPJ Digital, so he knows first hand the work involved in setting up a community and keeping it going.
  • The Ethics and International Committees are working together to get the Code of Ethics translated into other languages.
  • I had a call with national board members Patti Newberry, Sue Kopen Katcef, Brett Hall and Jordan Gass Poore last week to discuss student internships and the formation of a student-based community. Brett and Jordan agreed to lead the community and Patti & Sue agreed to serve as advisors. I need to get some input from our legal counsel since some of the internship issues we are discussing involve labor laws.
  • I have selected SPJ’s EIJ15 programming committee volunteer – Athima Chansanchai (“Tima”) from the W. Washington Pro chapter. Tima was a diversity fellow this year and has helped with programming for the AAJA national convention several years ago. She will oversee the programming subcommittee that includes Paul Fletcher, Lynn Walsh and Patti Newberry.
  • Amy Tardif of RTDNA scheduled a pre-planning EIJ15 programming conference call for early January to discuss EIJ14 successes, areas for improvement and goals for EIJ15. Scott Leadingham, director of education, is scheduling his first EIJ15 planning call before the holidays.
  • We updated our statement speaking against Ohio legislation HB663, the secret executions bill, which went before the Ohio Senate Tuesday and today. Past president Kevin Smith attended on SPJ’s behalf.
  • SPJ Freelance Chair Michael Fitzgerald and I spoke regarding the Freelance Community to discuss the election process.
  • SPJ hosted a Digital Tools webinar taught by Kim Bui.
  • SPJ has made an agreement to provide services to another journalism organization and has put a call out to hire a part-time communications person to help with that work.
  • SDX did a big fundraising push this week, including a mailing and an email campaign. SPJ members are encouraged to set up monthly donations or make a one-time donation to help fund SDX’s efforts. Donate here.
  • New member benefits are forthcoming. Linda Hall has been working hard to develop new relationships and acquire new benefits for our members. SPJ HQ will announce those new benefits soon, so stay tuned!
  • We are trying to finalize all of the spring conferences. Some dates and locations are still tentative. The info. that is known can be found here.
  • Joe hired a replacement for the part-time membership retention coordinator. We are eager to welcome him aboard!
  • Tara Puckey was promoted to membership strategist to help further SPJ’s long-term mission and to address our changing membership needs. Linda Hall will continue to provide our members with the great service she always has. Congrats to Tara for this well-deserved promotion!
  • FOIA chair Dave Cuillier issued a statement urging the U.S. Senate to pass the FOIA Improvement Act. SPJ tweeted this tonight. Senator Jay Rockefeller has put a hold on the bill.
  • Butler Cain, J Ed committee chair, held a meeting with his committee yesterday to discuss providing resources, guidance and a list of experts to help support high school journalists and educators.
  • Robyn Sekula, membership chair, is accepting nominations for the December Volunteer of the Month (deadline is tomorrow) and finalizing the committee’s strategic plan for the year.
  • Carlos Restrepo and the International Journalism Community are also finalizing their goals for the year and selecting their assignments and projects. We have an enthusiastic bunch here – I am excited to see them move forward!
  • Sarah Bauer, contest advisory group coordinator and co-chair of the Awards & Honors committee, is in the process of matching up SPJ contest swap partners across the country. This is a thankless task, but an important one. Thanks to Sarah for taking the lead!

Thanks to everyone within SPJ and SDX – staff, leaders and volunteers – who have contributed in some way to our success and mission. It truly takes a village, and we’ve got some big goals to tackle this year. I appreciate your enthusiasm and support.

As always, if I left something out, it was unintentional. My head is spinning with all of the activity, but if I omitted something, let me know, and I’ll update this post.

Til next time,

Dana Neuts
SPJ President

 

 

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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. 22

It’s been three weeks since my last post, and a lot has happened in SPJ and the journalism world in that short time. Here are a few highlights:

Earlier this week, we lost journalism legend Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post. He inspired an entire generation of journalists and took editing to a new level. He will be missed. Here is a nice piece in The Washington Post remembering his contributions.

SPJ Georgia and regional director Michael Koretzky fought for and supported George Chidi, a freelance journalist in Georgia, after Thomas Owens, a candidate for DeKalb County commissioner, sought a temporary protective order and filed an application for a warrant on stalking charges against the journalist. The protective order and application were both dismissed, upholding the First Amendment and helping to protect Chidi’s right to do his job. Thanks to SPJ Georgia and Koretzky for fighting on Chidi’s behalf.

SPJ, the Student Press Law Center and 18 other organizations sent a letter to education leaders to renounce the actions of the Neshaminy School District in Bucks County, Pennsylvania for punishing student journalists and their adviser for refusing to use the term “redskins” in the Playwickian, a school publication. Principal Rob McGee suspended the journalism adviser for two days without pay, removed the Playwickian editor from her position for a month, and the newspaper was fined $1,200, the cost of the June edition which omitted the Native American mascot name.

In other SPJ news:

The membership committee, led by Robyn Sekula, is working on a master plan to outline its goals and strategies for the coming year. The committee also named its October Volunteer of the Month – Lee Anne Peck of the University of Northern Colorado. Congratulations, Lee Anne!

The SPJ international journalism community, led by Carlos Restrepo, is also working on a master plan, breaking its work into three primary goals and subcommittees. More on that once the community has had time to review and comment on it.

The journalism education committee is publishing a book in January titled “Still Captive? History, Law and the Teaching of High School Journalism.” The project is the result of three years of research and a survey of nearly 250 Journalism Education Association members in 47 states.

The ethics committee continues to be busy, educating others on the revised Code of Ethics, preparing supplemental materials for SPJ.org and speaking on ethical issues. Check out this post from ethics chair Andrew Seaman on the ethical reporting of Ebola.

The awards and honors committee, led by Andy Schotz, has been working with Abbi Martzall, SPJ’s awards coordinator, to review our awards criteria and make recommendations for changes. Sarah Bauer, the committee’s co-chair, is coordinating the swaps for local and regional SPJ chapter contests. If she hasn’t already, she’ll be contacting awards coordinators in the near future to plan for swaps for next year’s contest season.

The Generation J committee, led by Claudia Amezcua, has been working with her committee on its plan for the year and will be working with secretary-treasurer Lynn Walsh and past president John Ensslin on the recommendations made by the futures task force in June. Two goals for Gen J this year are to broaden the committee’s mission to include journalists at all career levels and to partner with other committees to offer training opportunities via joint Google hangouts.

Led by SPJ past president David Cuillier, the FOI committee has been hard at work, developing a blogging and tweeting strategy for the committee to handling breaking FOI news and to be proactive on FOI issues. For FOI resources, check out the FOI page on SPJ.org.

At SPJ headquarters, staff has been busy on many fronts, including planning for EIJ15 (yes, already!), sending out new ethics posters and bookmarks, working on affinity partnerships to offer additional benefits to our members, and developing communications strategies for how and when to communicate with the public and other media organizations.

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Phoenix on behalf of SPJ where I talked to ASU journalism students about how to get started freelancing and get those first critical clips. I also met with SDX president Robert Leger and had a fun evening with SPJ members of the Valley of the Sun Pro chapter where we celebrated some local journalism and PR successes and talked about what’s next for SPJ in the year ahead. I’ve also been working with communications staff at HQ to create an outreach plan to help promote our communities. Up next: a visit to Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Washington, finding a volunteer to help support our communities, and planning our January executive committee meeting.

I am sure I have omitted a letter SPJ signed onto or committee projects and, if so, I apologize. The omission is unintentional, but email me so I can include it next time. As always, thanks for your support of SPJ. If you have questions, concerns or ideas, you can email me at SPJDANA @ GMAIL.COM.

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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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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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WHAT WE DID IN ANAHEIM

(Editor’s Note: This report is the president’s synopsis of the Executive Committee’s Jan. 19, 2013, meeting and does not represent the official minutes.)

At its winter meeting in Anaheim, Calif., the SPJ Executive Committee adopted new financial-reporting requirements for chapters, recommended that the full SPJ Board adopt proposed openness and accountability guidelines and asked me to present proposed social media guidelines to the full board at its April meeting.

CHAPTER FINANCES

 The seven-member Executive Committee unanimously adopted an immediate change in the financial-reporting requirements that professional chapters must meet when they file their annual reports with SPJ headquarters. The change requires chapters, beginning with the annual report to be filed in June, to include copies of the chapter’s bank statements for the preceding 12 months.

 The committee took this extraordinary step because of the recent discovery of financial impropriety in the Greater Los Angeles Pro Chapter. This marked the second time in less than a year that a pro chapter learned that a trusted member had made unauthorized withdrawals from its bank account.

 The L.A. chapter discovered its financial losses after adopting the fiscal best practices that the SPJ Board approved last September in Ft. Lauderdale. One of the recommended practices advises chapters to create an ad hoc budget committee to craft a chapter budget. The Los Angeles chapter did that and wound up removing its treasurer from office. The chapter board hired an attorney and took steps to get a professional accounting of its assets.

National Executive Committee members were gravely concerned at this latest news of mishandled chapter finances. We asked ourselves how many more chapters might be oblivious to such impropriety because they fail to take sensible steps to treat their financial activities in a business-like manner.

Consequently, the committee acted to ensure that someone at the national level keeps an eye on all chapters to make sure they are relying on evidence rather than trust when it comes to their finances.

As it happened, President-elect Dave Cuillier’s report on openness and accountability (see next section) contained a recommendation that every chapter and regional director be required to submit copies of their bank statements as part of their annual reports to SPJ headquarters. (Regional directors aren’t required to submit annual reports, but that may be something worth considering.)

The Executive Committee also voted to recommend that the full board offer the Los Angeles chapter a line of credit up to $5,000 to help it with its legal expenses. The committee’s vote was split – 4 to 2. (I did not vote.)

L.A. chapter representative Lauren Bartlett asked SPJ’s national leaders for a grant, but the committee opposed an outright grant. While the chapter still has several thousand dollars in its bank account, its board is concerned that its legal fees may exceed its remaining treasury, Bartlett told us.

Since the Executive Committee meeting, L.A. chapter President Alice Walton has told me that the chapter may not need the line of credit.

The Oklahoma chapter’s treasury was wiped out by its former treasurer, but the chapter has so far not asked for assistance, relying instead on donations and fund-raising.

 OPENNESS & ACCOUNTABILITY

In the wake of debate over openness and accountability at last September’s convention in Ft. Lauderdale, I asked Dave Cuillier to develop, with others, recommended best practices for chapters to make sure their actions are as transparent as possible. The proposal that Dave presented to the Executive Committee is equally applicable to the national organization.

Here is the preamble of the proposed Openness and Accountability Best Practices:

The Society of Professional Journalists and its professional and student chapters are not government entities, but members believe in the strongest principles of transparency — the business of the people should be done before the people, inviting the people to participate. The following guidelines provide tips and recommendations for fostering openness and accountability at the local, regional and national levels of the society.

The guidelines address methods for making meetings accessible and being open in our communications and with our records.

The committee voted unanimously to send the proposal to the full board for adoption in April. The full text of the proposal can be found here. OPENNESS DRAFT

Dave’s report addressed the background under which the best-practices proposal was developed. The report cited the Press Club of Long Island’s openness policy, which the chapter adopted in December. And it noted that chapter leaders who responded to a quick survey are generally supportive of more openness.

Along with the openness guidelines approved by the Executive Committee, Dave’s report also included proposed action steps, some of which headquarters staff are already implementing. Such as: providing chapters with a basic level of web support to help them create and maintain websites, blogs and/or Facebook pages for posting meeting notices, agendas, minutes and other records.

During discussion of this report, the committee urged staff to make sure that important national SPJ documents can be easily found on the website. SPJ’s bylaws, IRS Form 990s and other financial reports, the conflict of interest policy, whistleblower policy and other items already are posted to the site but are difficult to find.

DIGITAL COMMUNICATIONS

After EIJ12, I asked Brandon Ballenger, treasurer of the South Florida Pro Chapter, and staff chapter coordinator Tara Puckey to head up a small task force to develop recommended social media guidelines and to answer questions about the use of SPJ’s many blogs.

The task force ultimately included SPJ Gen J co-chair Victoria Reitano, Director-at-Large Carl Corry and former SPJ board member James Pilcher.

The group’s report stressed common sense in all digital communications involving SPJ. A copy of the full report can be found here. Digital Media Committee 1.7.2013

The group made two proposals:

  • A set of guidelines to follow when SPJ’s president asks another officer, board member or chapter leader to conduct a fact-finding mission in anticipation of an official SPJ statement or comment on an event of interest to journalists and journalism.

  • Proposed social media practices that focus on disclosure, content and live events.

I recommended to the Executive Committee that it forward to the full board the proposed social media guidelines with the understanding that a new draft with some slight changes will be prepared. The committee supported that recommendation.

WORKING PRESS

The Executive Committee gave Joe Skeel the authority to alter the Working Press program and partner with RTDNA’s student project. As a result SPJ will no longer produce a printed newspaper at the annual conference. Some members may disapprove of this move, but the committee felt the timing was right.

The time, energy and costs associated with printing a daily journal for just three days have expanded to the point that we had to take a serious look at the cost-benefit ratio. Another factor we considered is that a fourth of the students who participate in the Working Press are dedicated to production activities rather than going out and about to gain reporting experience. While there remains a need for designers and other “production” workers, we felt the more valuable experience would for students would be in honing their online and video production skills along with their reporting and writing skills.

We intend to keep the project a competitive internship for about 12 students. They will cover the convention as they always have (while making contacts within the news industry.) Working professionals will continue to serve as advisers. The only major difference will be in how the news about the convention is delivered – online via social media and other platforms.

Breaking from tradition is always difficult, but when faced with the challenges and limitations of a printed product and the need for SPJ to be perceived as relevant among the next generation of journalists, the change was relatively easy to decide.

OTHER BUSINESS

Secretary-Treasurer Dana Neuts reported on three initiatives she’s spearheaded:

  • Providing freelancers and other SPJ members with SPJ Solutions, a source of insurance and financial services products through Westpoint Financial Group in Indianapolis.

  • Creating a Contest Advisory Group to connect chapters and regions that sponsor journalism contests and facilitate contest-judging swaps among them.

  • Securing a copyright for the Freelance Guide that the Freelance Committee developed while Dana was committee chair.

One of the traditions of the winter Executive Committee meeting is deciding which officers attend which regional spring conference. Here’s the list:

  • March 15-17

Region 3, Atlanta – Cuillier and Albarado

  • April 5-7

Region 4, Dayton, OH – Ralston

Region 12, Oxford, MS – Albarado

  • April 12-14

Region 1, New Brunswick, NJ – Albarado

Region 6, Bloomington, MN – Ralston

Region 9, Santa Fe, NM – Eckert

Region 10, Spokane – Neuts

Region 11, Las Vegas – Cuillier

  • April 19-21

Region 2, Norfolk, VA – None. This is the same weekend as the SPJ Board spring meeting in Indy

  • April 26-28

Regions 5 & 7, St. Louis – Ralston

  • May 3-5

Region 8, San Antonio – Albarado

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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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Ethics questions are a way of life

Note: A version of this column also appears in the March/April issue of Quill magazine.

A journalist friend who also is commissioner in a fantasy baseball league to which I belong recently sent an email to all the team owners who also are journalists.

Does playing in a league that features modest fees and prize money constitute a form of sports betting? he inquired. And if so, does that constitute an ethical violation?

After all, he noted, there have been cases where sports columnists have been disciplined and even fired following disclosures that they had placed some rather large bets with gambling bookies.

Ultimately, we decided to go ahead with our league this spring because none of us are sports reporters, the money is nominal and winning requires a lot more strategy and skill than a simple bet.

But I bring up this matter not just because it raised an interesting question but I loved the mere fact that we were having that conversation.

It also illustrates a belief that I’ve long held when it came to journalism ethics.

I’ve never thought of ethics as a high-brow concept or something that we ponder during the occasional panel or classroom discussion. It’s not a code of conduct written in stone or parsed in a textbook.

To me, it’s more like a daily meditation and a way of looking at the world. It’s part of the fabric of everyday life as a reporter, not just on big stories where there are tough decisions and close judgement calls.

I think of it more as a practice that requires some thoughtful behavior on matters as large as a front page story or as small a cup of coffee that we insist on paying for or whether we can place can place a small bet on a sporting event.

Ethical decision making is also something that grows more difficult the harder we work at our craft.

When I’ve talked to student journalists on this topic, I explain that one way they can avoid an ethical dilemma is to not work very hard and not dig very deep.

But then I quickly add that they’ll be lousy journalists if they don’t dig deeper into news stories and willingly put themselves into situations where ethical questions grow more frequent and complex.

That’s also one reason why I like the SPJ Code of Ethics, particularly in the way we apply it not as an immutable set of rules but rather a tool to help working journalists work though those problems.

The latest  issue of Quill is the one we devote each year to stories on journalism ethics. It comes out at a time of year when many of our chapters will be holding ethics events ranging from panel discussions to the popular ethics poker games.

But our preoccupation with this topic is year round and day-by-day.

Small wonder then that journalism ethics is the one area where SPJ is viewed as the industry leader and where our code is seen as the gold standard.

We do a lot of great and important work each year in other areas such as freedom of information, diversity, professional training and defending the public’s right to know.

But our ethics code — as one longtime SPJ member once told me — is our franchise. It’s the area where people both inside and outside our profession turn to us first.

Just within this past year we’ve had a would-be presidential candidate and a school board in New Jersey try to use our code to their own purpose.

In both instances, we’ve had to remind people that one of the strengths of our code and the reason for its durability  is because it is a voluntary set of guidelines that call for balancing competing interests in order to do what is right.

But the fact that they held up our code as something of value is a testament to its strength and utility.

I also love the fact that we’re never done with this work. Last year, SPJ and SDX published the fourth edition of our book “Journalism Ethics – a Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media.”

And this year, our Ethics Committee has undertaken an ambitious project of issuing a series of white papers that elaborate on such topics as political activity and checkbook journalism.

I’d urge you go out and buy the book and read those white papers on our website and thumb through the stories in Quill.

I think you’ll find as I do that not a working day goes by when these guideposts are not useful tools in negotiating and resolving ethical questions, be they large or small.

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Nobody asked me, but… Updates from the president

I’m very excited that SPJ recently opened an account that will enable us to host online meetings and webinars.

We’ve subscribed to GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar. While there is a bit of a learning curve to understanding how to operate them, I see great promise here.

For example, let’s say a chapter in New Jersey would like to host a webinar featuring an expert in Denver talking about search engine optimization. We can do that now.

Let’s say the Diversity Committee would like to host a meeting where the members can talk and conduct a video conference. We can do that too.

And let’s say the Executive Committee wants to hold a virtual meeting that other members want to watch live. We can and will do that. Stay tuned for details.

Death of a journalist

Speaking of virtual programs … I thought Linda Jue of our Northern California chapter conducted a really interesting interview last week with journalist Thomas Peele.

Peele talked about his new book, “Killing the Messenger,” which details the background of the 2007 murder of Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey.  It’s not really what you would call a true crime book, but rather a history of the Black Muslim movement and the cult to which Bailey’s killers belonged.

I was particularly fascinated to learn that while Bailey was killed because of a story he was working on, he was not what you would describe as a classic investigative journalist, Peele said.

“Chauncey was a community journalist, editor of a community newspaper,” Peele said. “He wanted to make the community paper, The Oakland Post, stronger.”

“His background was in daily journalism. He had been a reporter at The Detroit News. He was one of those workhorse journalists that we all know who could turn out 2-3 stories a day and fill up the newspaper.”

“…He was a good daily reporter, but he simply didn’t work on long investigative projects. It wasn’t the nature of the journalism that he did.”

Peele described how Bailey was killed over a 15 inch story that had not yet been published when he was gunned down while walking to work on Aug. 2, 2007.

Hear the podcast of this 30-minute program

 

Mobbed up in Boston

And speaking of crime and journalism, I could not pass up an opportunity to host a segment of Studio SPJ on Saturday, March 10 at noon ET with Boston Globe journalist Emily Sweeney.

Emily is president of our New England chapter and a member of our Digital Media Committee. I’ve been a fan of her work for some time. As a former crime reporter myself, I loved her Globe story, “Greatest Hits – A Mob Tour of Boston.”

We’ll talk about her new book, “Boston Organized Crime.” So be sure to tune in. You can hear the live broadcast or listen later to the podcast here.

 

Textbook Authors in the Big Easy

Here’s another program that might interest you.

Mary Kay Switzer, a longtime member of SPJ’s Cal Poly Pomona chapter, is national president of the Text and Academic Authors Association, which will host its 25th annual confab in New Orleans June 8-9.

A bit of info on the gathering:

The conference will feature two workshops, more than a dozen sessions and several small-group discussions; the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a veteran author or attorney specializing in educational publishing; and several networking opportunities, including a welcome breakfast and an evening networking reception.

Joy Hakim, author of the ten-volume K-12 textbook series, “A History of US,” and three-volume textbook series, “The Story of Science,” will give a keynote presentation on Friday morning titled, “Textbooks Should Be Great Books!”

And thanks to TAA for sharing information with their members on our SPJ spring conferences.

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