Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Memos and Emails to Federal Agency Employees Ban Press Releases, Social Media Posts and “Outward Facing” Documents

Denying agencies from sharing and communicating with the public, even temporarily, denies citizens their rights to access and the ability to hold the government accountable.

The public’s access to its government and its employees is dying.

Tuesday, memos and emails, obtained by a variety of news organizations, show federal agencies are being prohibited from sending press releases, posting on social media and sharing information on blogs.

The agencies involved include the Environmental Protection Agency (link 1, link 2) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It is being described as a temporary media blackout but in reality, it is the public that is being kept in the dark.

The Associated Press is reporting emails sent to EPA staff since President Donald Trump took office, ban employees from “providing updates on social media or to reporters.” According to BuzzFeed News, USDA employees, specifically employees in the Agricultural Research Service department, were told not to release “any public-facing documents” including “news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.”

This is a step away from transparency. This is also a step in the complete opposite direction of what The Society of Professional Journalists and more than 60 other journalism and free press organizations were hoping to discuss with President Trump and his administration when we sent a letter asking for more transparency within government agencies and more direct access to government employees.

The letter, sent to President Trump and his administration less than a week ago, specifically asked for a meeting to discuss three things:

  • the ability of reporters to directly interact with government employees who are subject matter experts, rather than interacting with Public Information Officers (or having all conversations monitored by Public Information Officers);
  • access to the activities of the President;
  • and ensuring that the Federal Freedom of Information Act remains as strong as possible.

Click here to read the letter.

Policies, where federal agencies are barred, even temporarily, from releasing information to the public are unacceptable. These policies prevent the public from knowing what the agencies are spending taxpayer money on. They go against what this country was founded on. They go against our existence as a democracy.

These policies keep the public completely in the dark. They also do not allow journalists to hold the government and its officials accountable.

According to the Washington Post, USDA officials said ARS had not “blacked out public information.” They added, according to the article “that scientific articles published through professional peer-reviewed journals have not been banned.” In a statement, a representative with the ARS told the Washington Post, “as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency, ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public as we strive to find solutions to agricultural problems affecting America.”

It is unclear if these directives came from within the USDA, from Trump himself or from officials overseeing the transition.

What is clear when instituting policies like this is that it shows a complete disregard for the public’s right to know what the government it is doing and it threatens the right of the public to access information through the Federal Freedom of Information Act.

SPJ will not stand by and watch as journalists and the public’s rights are being threatened. Even if temporary, this is a step away from an open and honest government.

SPJ Board endorses ethics code draft revision

Next week SPJ delegates will discuss whether to revise the Code of Ethics at EIJ14 in Nashville, and the Board endorses approval of a draft revision developed over the past year.

During a recorded Skype meeting Aug. 20, the Board discussed the draft code for an hour and a half  (see Skype meeting online, along with text discussion).

The Board voted to remove the line “Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place.” Members also debated including an additional line encouraging caution in dealing with anonymous online comments, but it was not approved by the full board. There was quite a bit of conversation about a variety of topics, which can be viewed online.

The final tally of the Board vote was 11 in favor of the revised code (Brett Hall, Neuts, Hernandez, Gallagher-Newberry, Albarado, Hallenberg, Fox, Matt Hall, Tallent, Kopen Katcef, Fletcher), 4 against (Cook, Koretzky, Schotz, Corry), and 1 abstention (Sheets). Also, see analysis by Region 2 Director Andy Schotz, who proposed several amendments.

The Board’s recommendation is only advisory. Members also will get to vote online on whether they think delegates should approve the revision. Ultimately, it will be up to delegates in the closing business session 3-5 p.m. Sept. 6. They can approve the proposed draft (which delegates can change next week), turn it down, or continue discussions for the next year.

In addition to the ethics code discussion last week, the Board also approved, unanimously, the creation of a Digital Community. Stay tuned for more information about that from incoming President Dana Neuts!

Board appoints two for interim positions

On Monday, the SPJ Board conducted a phone conference call meeting to appoint two people to national positions in the interim until national elections in September.

A student rep position will be filled by Brett Hall from the University of Maryland and the Region 11 Director position will be filled in the interim by Matt Hall of the San Diego pro chapter. The field was extremely competitive, which goes to show we have amazing people in SPJ willing and capable of taking leadership roles.

While the two will serve only five weeks, we felt it was important to get people in the spots because of two upcoming board meetings, one in August by phone and the first board meeting at EIJ14 in September. The positions will be filled permanently through the online election process at EIJ14, so members will elect a student rep and Region 11 members will choose their permanent director. Anyone can still run for both positions, if they wish (ask Tara Puckey for more details, at

In the board meeting Monday, a variety of issues were discussed, but the main focus was considering the individual nominees’ strengths. Ultimately, we were ecstatic by the strong slate of candidates and will be encouraging all of them to get involved in SPJ through other ways, including national committees. If you are interested in joining a cause, such as the Ethics Committee, Diversity Committee, or FOI Committee, among others, contact president-elect Dana Neuts at

Before the next virtual board meeting planned for August to discuss the ethics code revision, creating a digital journalism community, and a future plan for advocacy, we are hoping to find a platform that will enable the public to listen in. We have worked to improve transparency this year, including live streaming of in-person meetings, but we can do more.

In the spirit of transparency, we would normally post roll call votes in the minutes and leave it at that, but here were the votes from Monday’s phone meeting:

Roll call vote for Brett Hall (6 yes, 3 no, 3 abstain):
Fletcher: Yes
Neuts: Yes
Kopen Katcef: Yes
Albarado: Abstain
Corry: Yes
Fox: No
Tallent: No
Schotz: Yes
Koretzky: Abstain
Stevens: Yes
Sheets: Abstain
Hernandez: No

Roll call vote for Matt Hall (7 yes, 4 abstain, 1 no)
Fletcher: Yes
Neuts: Yes
Kopen Katcef: Abstain
Albarado: Abstain
Corry: Yes
Fox: Yes
Tallent: Yes
Schotz: Yes
Koretzky: No
Stevens: Abstain
Sheets: Yes
Hernandez: Abstain

Third draft out on ethics code revision

Kudos to the Code of Ethics revision group that met in Columbus this weekend to hammer out the final draft of the code. Feel free to check out the meeting, which was streamed live.

In the next few days the code revision website will also include a Q&A on the revision by Kevin Smith, who is leading the process, as well as a strike-through version to see the specific changes. Members can review it, continue to provide feedback, and vote on it in the online election in September. Also, the SPJ Board will chime in with its thoughts and recommendations and ultimately delegates will discuss it at EIJ14 in Nashville Sept. 4-6.

Thanks to the group that has been working all year to provide delegates a revised code to consider. Also, thanks to the hundreds of members and non-members who have provided suggestions and feedback (see feedback form), which were all considered by the group. The latest version truly reflects today’s media much better than the existing code.

John Seigenthaler: Friend to SPJ, journalism, civil rights

Today a great journalist and SPJ friend died.

1404931281000-seigenthaler-2John Seigenthaler, a longtime, editor of the Tennessean, died at age 86. You can read his obit, along with links to amazing examples of his legacy. He was the kind of person who has a name bridge after him, except unlike a lot of people who have structures named after them, he actually effected social change as an advocate for civil rights. He knew presidents. He knew a lot of people. He was an advocate for rural journalism. He made a difference.

SPJ has honored him in many ways, including a First Amendment Award and a Fellow of the Society. When we convene in Nashville for EIJ14 in September, let’s all raise a toast to him and other journalists who made the world a better place.


A voice in the wilderness finally heard

Wow. I am floored by the solidarity of journalism groups in pushing back against excessive information control by the federal government.

Since Tuesday when we sent a letter to Obama urging him to stop the secrecy, along with 37 other groups signing on, we’ve received even more support from other groups and a flood of interview requests and mentions from media around the world, including interviews with Fox News, USA Today, HuffPostLive (six minutes in).

Never before have I seen as many journalism groups come together on an issue, particularly one that has been relatively marginalized for years. I credit the tenacity of SPJ member Kathryn Foxhall, who has led the charge on this issue for several years. This D.C.-based freelancer has pushed, pulled and yelled, often shunted aside. Journalists have said it’s inside baseball and that reporters just need to buck up and do their jobs.

Kathryn did not give up. She worked with the National Press Club, Society of Environmental Journalists and other groups to drum up attention. She put on a press conference earlier this year in D.C. She helped former SPJ president and current Kennesaw professor Carolyn Carlson and the SPJ FOI Committee with survey research about the issue. She kept pushing for this letter.

It is finally paying off. Journalists now see that they don’t have to stand by and remain silent to these tactics. Such as today as the feds give a tour in Oklahoma for journalists of the facility holding children who tried to cross the border from Latin America. The Media tour restrictions prohibit recording devices, prohibit reporters from talking to anyone, and even prohibit reporters from asking questions.

We do not have to go along. We can push back. At all levels of government. Write about these controls. Do not accept the restrictions. Get Congress to pass a shield law and give the Office of Government Information Services the authority to punish agencies that are secretive and break the law.

Thank you, Kathryn. Let’s not just hold the line. It’s time to regain lost ground.

President Dave: Unethical, secretive and raiding the coffers?

In the past week Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky has posted two blog items that have accused SPJ and myself of being unethical, secretive, and “raiding SPJ coffers.” While I have admired Michael’s creativity and passion, and I certainly have no problem taking criticism, I feel I should set the record straight on his accusations because he impugns SPJ.

And he’s just plain wrong.

In Michael’s posts, he takes issue with how the SPJ Code of Ethics revision process has progressed, and is particularly opposed to an in-person meeting to be held in mid-July in Columbus by the group honing a third draft, based on feedback from members and non-members. I don’t have a problem disagreeing over process, and certainly we could always improve and have improved the process based on Michael’s feedback, but he plays loose with the facts, saying SPJ and senior leaders are unethical and secretive.

  1. Columbus Day: At issue is the plan to hold a meeting July 12 in Columbus, Ohio, for the 18-member group tasked with drafting an updated code of ethics, taking into account feedback from members and non-members. The final draft will be reviewed by the SPJ Board, voted on by the members, and eventually provided to the delegates at the EIJ14 convention in September for consideration. Of the 18 people working through the revisions, 12 have confirmed their attendance (Kevin Smith, Fred Brown, Hagit Limor, Irwin Gratz, Paul Fletcher, Mike Farrell, Lauren Bartlett, Elizabeth Donald, Carole Feldman, Chris Roberts, Andrew Seaman and Monica Guzman (and Joe Skeel)). They will stay at a campus hotel and four people will drive rather than fly. Based on these preliminaries, the estimate is about $9,000. They will start 9 a.m. Saturday at a free campus conference room and work through the day, probably done by 5-6 p.m. The meeting will be streamed live for anyone to watch. They will start at the top of the code and work their way through. Kevin anticipates a few areas of contention in Act Independently and Be Accountable, but he believes it’s doable in 8-9 hours. Executive Director Joe Skeel will post the revisions to the website on Monday for people to review and provide feedback.
  2. Out in the open: The meeting next month has not been a secret, and certainly not to Michael. He knew about this plan for months. The idea of an in-person meeting was outlined in an SDX Ethics Grant Request submitted March 25, which Michael had read. I’ve posted information online on this blog. At the April 26 SPJ Board meeting we talked about the process for 40 minutes (discussion begins at 2 hours, 39 minutes). Information is online at the ethics code revision website. To say that the process has been secretive is not true. As most people know, I’m not a fan of secrecy.
  3. Board support: The SPJ Board had the chance to question the process, and it did. Some very good points were raised and as a result we made changes and provided more details online. When the SDX Foundation Board decided to turn down the grant request on April 27, they told me that SPJ should pay for the expense of the in-person meeting since it’s an Ethics Committee function. Given the level of support I saw on the SPJ Board the day before, and that we did not have an SPJ Board meeting before July, I made the call to move ahead. I understand that Michael opposes the meeting, but I chose to act because of the importance of the code – an initiative I believe vital to our mission, our members, and journalism. I believe I did so with the support of the majority of the Board, and this week a majority of the Board confirmed their support for the process and in-person meeting next month.
  4. Fiscal responsibility: This expense is well within our means, and we wouldn’t move ahead if it wasn’t. The cost of the meeting next month is currently estimated at $9,000. That is still just 0.56 percent of SPJ’s $1.6 million budget, and even less when you consider the $400,000 SPJ has available in reserves. That is why the budget is flexible, and why we have a reserve fund – to cover things that come up unexpectedly, that we could not predict 18 months ago in January 2013 when the budget was first drafted.
  5. Essential expense: Michael thinks the meeting is a waste of time, and there are others in the minority who agree. I respect opposing opinions. When the code was last revised in 1994-96 the group held several in-person meetings, due to the technology at the time. Some say the code could be hashed out online via email or online conferencing. I disagree. Online conferencing would not allow for members to watch the meeting live streaming (most limit number of participants), and this year I have made it a priority to make sure our business is conducted openly. Also, when it comes to working through contentious issues, I believe face-to-face communication is best, particularly when non-verbal communication is involved. What’s the best interview method, email, phone or in-person? In-person. This code revision is important, and given it happens rarely, it is imperative we proceed as best we can.

I would be more than happy to answer questions or provide further clarification for any members (email: If anyone thinks I am unethical, secretive or raiding SPJ coffers, I would be happy to talk about it. While I respect Michael’s creativity and passion, I believe his latest behavior and accusations have done nothing to help the process or SPJ.

June 21 Executive Committee meeting recap

Here are some of the highlights of items discussed June 21 by the Executive Committee at its meeting in Washington, D.C. (see video of the meeting, which was streamed live, here):

  • The committee discussed the future of SPJ, including how to improve support for chapters, or even individual members who would like to create programs in their areas without jumping through the hoops that chapters are required to follow. The full board will discuss this more in-depth at EIJ14 in September.
  • SPJ continues to fight for a federal shield law. On June 20 SPJ attorney Laurie Babinski and I met with Sen. Mark Udall’s (D-Colo.) staff to build support, and secretary-treasurer Paul Fletcher met with the staff of Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). One thing I love about SPJ is it’s one of the few journalism organizations that is a 501c6 and legally entitled to lobby. We have the ability and responsibility to fight on behalf of journalists! I give the odds of the shield law passing about 50-50 at this point – which are pretty good odds. For more information, see the SPJ shield law website.
  • Former SPJ President John Ensslin presented the recommendations from the Futures Task Force (provided in the meeting packet). Ideas included extending post-graduate membership rates by a year, redesigning SPJ Leads, and offering more online training. The full board will review the recommendations at EIJ14, including whether to drop the SPJ Job Bank or put more resources into it.
  • I provided an update on the Code of Ethics revision process, which is outlined online. The group working on the revision is currently finishing its second draft, following feedback from members and non-members. That should be posted online in early July. Then the group will meet in Columbus in mid-July to hash out final edits and contentious sticking points, producing a third draft. Then the SPJ board, members and anyone else can review the draft and discuss. The SPJ Board will vote on it in August via conference call to give their thumbs up or down. Then the delegates can approve the approve the version as is, change it, or reject it at their meeting in September at EIJ14. Or, they could table it and direct further work on the revision.
  • The Freelance Community is nearly ready to launch, and should be live within a week or two. SPJ members will be able to sign up, hold offices, share tips, and network with each other. Thanks to Michael Fitzgerald and others for their work on this. Check out the beta website. More communities are likely to spring up in the next year.
  • Sonny Albarado, immediate past president, announced that there is a strong slate of nominees for SPJ office. Check out the current list of candidates. Remember, every member can vote online in September – you don’t have to attend EIJ14 to vote!
  • Executive Director Joe Skeel reported that he received about 50 applications for the new communications strategist position, many with an incredible amount of experience in journalism, PR and social media. We should have someone on board by the end of the summer. See job post.
  • Kathryn Foxhall, who has led the charge on pushing back against excessive Public Information Officer controls, spoke for a few minutes about the problems journalists are encountering, and encouraged SPJ to push harder. I totally agree! Check out some studies SPJ conducted on the topic, in 2012 and 2014.
  • Advocacy fund: I am working up more details on a proposed endowed advocacy fund that could create a war chest for promoting and defending journalism forever. Stay tuned!

Thanks to everyone – staff, officers, committee volunteers, members and others – for supporting the cause and making journalism better!

Georgia AG needs civics lesson

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens needs to go back to school, and I don’t mean law school. He needs a high school Civics 101 lesson. We can help teach him.

Olens last week asked a judge to force a college student to remove public records from his blog. University of Georgia student David Schick acquired public records legally that included names of candidates for university president. He posted the records online on his blog. Nothing wrong with that. I love the blog post about this by Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky.

But Olens says the names should not have been released, so the student must take them down. Sorry, Mr. AG, but you can’t do that. There’s something called case law (e.g., Pentagon Papers), and we in America don’t care much for prior restraint (or post restraint, for that matter).

Also, the idea that candidates for university president should be secret is silly, and unfortunately more states are incorporating this exemption into their public record laws. A shame when it involves something so important. We need to push back against efforts to make that process hidden from public view.

In any case, there is nothing legally wrong with a journalist, or any citizen, posting government records online that were legally obtained. What irritates me the most is how officials intimidate college students. How petty and small.

Here are the public records: makeolensmad. I encourage all 8,000 members of SPJ, as well as every other U.S. citizen, to post these records online, as well, and then email Olens about it.

If you have a problem with that, Mr. Olens, try to get a judge to force me to remove them. Good luck with that.

SPJ Board meeting: Moving forward!

We are evolving as an organization, and I am incredibly excited.

At the SPJ Board meeting April 26 in Indianapolis our elected board members accomplished amazing things that have long-term implications for SPJ, journalism, and I believe, society. The board deserves a big thanks for its willingness to look ahead and take risks.

You can download the packet materials and watch the meeting online, as it was the first time we have streamed and recorded the meeting. Transparency rocks.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Our Future: The board unanimously supported the general vision for SPJ’s future laid out by Executive Director Joe Skeel (see his SPJ vision). The idea is that SPJ becomes more collaborative with the 60-some other journalism organizations for the single purpose of improving journalism to make the world a better place. The days of journalism groups competing over members should be over. If we are all stronger then all of journalism, and society, benefits. That is our mission.
  • SPJ/SDX: Similarly, we talked about the roles of SPJ (the 501c6) and the SDX Foundation (the 501c3), and how we might streamline duties. In particular, there is support for the idea of having SDX handle the bulk of journalism training/education, since its $12 million endowment already funds that via grants. Then SPJ can focus on what it is designed to do – fight for journalists. We have more talking to do, but in general the majority favors a more streamlined system with clearly delineated duties.
  • Taking the Offense: We unanimously supported in principle the idea of an endowed advocacy “Legal Offense Fund” to provide sustained funding for fighting for press freedom forever. The board directed me to put more details together for a final plan that can be considered this summer or fall. Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky posted a fun description of this concept. I will provide more information online in the next month. We must not only hold the line, but advance!
  • Communities: We officially approved the Freelance Community, which will provide a place for hundreds, if not thousands, of freelancers to network and gain critical skills. Stay tuned for more details this summer for how to get involved, thanks to freelancer Michael Fitzgerald who is leading the effort, as well as how to start a community in other areas.
  • Communications: We agreed to hire a full-time Communications Strategist to improve our communication with members, non-member journalists, policy makers and the public. Thanks to the excellent financial management of Director Joe Skeel, we can afford the position and still have a hefty rainy-day fund. Joe posted the job today. It’s time for us to move this ship forward, and let everyone know about it.
  • Internal Workings: If you are an SPJ policy wonk, check out the board packet and the $1.7 million budget online. We increased board allowances a little to help regional directors and others travel to members. We recommended a technical change in the bylaws for delegates to consider regarding election timing.
  • Name Change: The board voted to recommend to the delegates that they leave the organization’s name the way it is. The task force charged with gathering member input found that there was not overwhelming support for changing it to the Society for Professional Journalism (see the SPJ Name Change Task Force Report). Delegates can certainly discuss it again at EIJ14 in Nashville, and anyone can propose a resolution.
  • Officer Elections: Immediate past-president Sonny Albarado reported that he has found a lot of people planning to run for election this fall, including potentially contested races for secretary-treasurer (David Sheets and Lynn Walsh), four members for director-at-large, five candidates for campus adviser, and seven for the two student board seats. Great! Sonny also agreed to serve as resolutions chair, so if you have something in mind for a resolution, or you are thinking of running for an open seat, check out the website and contact Sonny at
  • Ethics Code Revision Update: We discussed the process undertaken so far to revise the code of ethics and I acknowledged the need to improve communications (see the blog post below). More information should be forthcoming in the next month. I’m optimistic that we will have a solid draft to provide to delegates in September. Whether they decide to approve anything, postpone a decision, or ignore it – I can’t control. But the board decided to meet via conference call this summer/fall to provide a recommendation for delegates.
  • College Support: We approved a second $5,000 grant from the Legal Defense Fund for the Otterbein University (Ohio) student newspaper to continue its battle to get campus police records.

That was an incredible meeting, and we have a lot of work ahead. I welcome anyone to attend the board meetings at EIJ14 in Nashville Sept. 3-6. I want to thank everyone for their outstanding work on these issues – staff, the board, executive officers, volunteer committee members, and the SDX Foundation.

What we do matters.


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