Annual report tidbits (campus edition)

Wednesday afternoon, I posted highlights of the interesting and impressive things that SPJ’s pro chapters in Region 2 did in the past journo-fiscal year. Those details came from the annual reports that chapters were required to submit several weeks ago.

Now, the campus chapters. There are details I picked out from the eight campus chapter reports turned in this year.

Elon University: The chapter participated in the “Race and the Modern Newsroom” program with the North Carolina Pro chapter, talking about race relations and diversity. It worked with the North Carolina Sunshine Center on a discussion of open records requests and laws. Other programs were with the author of a book about SEAL Team 6, a former Associated Press who was featured in the book “Boys on the Bus,” and a panel knowledgeable about freelancing.

George Mason University: This chapter went dormant several years ago, but a core group has done a great job of reviving it. Its programs included a session on digitizing a resume, two separate media panel discussions, a talk by a former USA Today editor, and a tour of the NBC station in D.C. Its idea of fundraising with a contest to guess how many jelly beans was different. I liked the idea of creating a 30-second video to promote the journalism program and the SPJ chapter, a supplement to several recruiting efforts it had.

Georgetown University: The chapter, only four years old, has grown strong. It hosted and did most of the work on the 2014 Region 2 conference and is the host chapter for a journalism job fair with five other organizations, including the Washington, D.C., Pro SPJ chapter. Other activities were a “Powerful Women in the Media” program that built off the Netflix series “House of Cards” and volunteer work with the Washington Association of Black Journalists’ annual Urban Journalism Workshop for high school students. An FOI program had a clever addition: an FOI quiz for anyone on campus who was interested.

 High Point University: The First Amendment Free Food Festival — a fun, thought-provoking event that has been held on numerous campuses — drew the biggest crowd of any High Point U. chapter program did this year. Students get a free meal in exchange for giving up their First Amendment rights. In other programs, a TV investigative reporter talked about trying to get information that other people are trying to hide, Time Warner Cable staff showed their 24/7/365 news operation, and a newspaper publisher and reporter led a discussion on the use of anonymous sources.

Salisbury University: The chapter has been so successful in raising money, it sent 12 students to the 2014 Region 2 conference at Georgetown University. Working with local restaurants that donate 10 to 20 percent of sales during a certain period, the chapter raises $120 to $200 at a time. The money also supports workshops the chapter has done on video journalism, photojournalism, interviewing and other topics. The chapter also raised $300 for the American Cancer Society through Relay for Life.

 University of Maryland: The list of activities on the annual report was long. The chapter is good at outreach, through a fall “welcome back barbecue” for the journalism school and exam goodie baskets, which are a fundraiser, too. The chapter — which hosted the 2015 Region 2 conference — is the only one in the region with programs in FOI (a Region 2 conference session), ethics (a session on the First Amendment and free speech), diversity (a talk by the Washington Post’s first black female reporter) and service (two blood drives). There was a debate watching party, a resume workshop and some journalism field trips, too.

Virginia Commonwealth University: VCU’s chapter organized a panel discussion on diversity in the media, helped organize a ceremony to celebrate the changing of the journalism school’s name and hosted a “journalism and a movie” evening. The chapter was part of several broader programs, such as a student organization fair and a media center mixer. The most unusual activity (and probably the most fun) was a “Battle of the Masses” dodgeball competition with other mass communications groups.

Western Carolina University: Chapter members opened their workshops to the entire communications department, including one on building a multimedia portfolio and another (that was held three times) on verification on social media. On the social front, the chapter jointly held a Christmas social with two other groups and organized a bowling night. To celebrate Constitution Day in September, chapter members created a Free Speech Wall on campus. The chapter raised about $120 through a bake sale.

I found these reports enlightening and inspiring. A great deal of work and thought went into creating many worthwhile professional development and social events, including several things that I never would have thought of. Well done, Region 2.

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Annual report tidbits (pro edition)

As journos know, the first time is interesting, the second indicates a trend.

In that vein, we continue the annual tradition of sharing intriguing nuggets from the annual reports SPJ chapters are required to file. It started with last year’s pro and campus chapter reports.

There are six SPJ professional chapters in Region 2. Here are highlights of what they did in the past journo-fiscal year.

Washington, D.C., Pro (my home chapter): Two of the more unusual programs this year were about net neutrality and obituary writing. For the second year, the chapter was a co-sponsor of a successful job fair held at Georgetown University (210 job seekers, 19 recruiters). It’s a good example of journalism organizations working together. The other co-sponsors are the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and the Washington Association of Black Journalists. When the chapter did a direct-mail campaign to retain people with expiring memberships, 10 to 12 percent responded with renewal checks.

Virginia Pro: The chapter was instrumental in College Media Day, which also was held for the second time. For $10, students hear from pros on topics such as jobs and internships, covering campus crime, drones, FOI, interviewing and much more. There’s also a Virginia Pro tradition of honoring George Mason, who wrote Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, the forerunner of the Bill of Rights. The chapter lays a wreath at the Mason Memorial in D.C., reads the Declaration of Rights and visits his home, which is now a museum.

Delaware Pro: Just like the D.C. effort, Delaware Pro contacts people to let them know their membership is expiring. It’s important to hold onto the existing members as you also try to attract new one. There was a “tweet up” and holiday happy hour, in which journos and Delaware PR people had some face-to-face time. The chapter was the first organization in the state to organize a debate for the Democratic candidates for state treasurer. The chapter has a mentoring program in which journalism students can connect with a pro.

Maryland Pro: The chapter’s leaders did a lot of the planning work for this year’s regional conference at the University of Maryland, College Park. One of the programs this year, through a collaboration with the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, was a lively panel discussion in Annapolis on social media. The chapter built a new website. It had the most detailed financial records accompanying its annual report, with dozens of pages of bank statements, receipts and membership dues payments.

Charlotte Pro: By the numbers, this was the most active chapter in Region 2, listing 12 programs on its annual report. Of course, quality matters, too; there was good stuff on the list. Professional development programs included effective videography, skillful interviewing and social media for reporting, podcasting and coverage of religion. Programs looked ahead and back at significant events. Journalism movie night – “Absence of Malice,” with an ethics discussion – was a good idea. This year, the chapter started a contest for journalism excellence.

North Carolina Pro: The chapter was right up there with the Charlotte Pro chapter in terms of activity; it had 11 programs listed on its report. It touched on an SPJ core value with a program on race relations coverage and diversity in the newsroom. The chapter scored points for creativity for some of its other activities, including a Thanksgiving social (guests shared what journalistic things they were thankful for) and two community service programs – answering phones at a telethon and volunteering at the Duke University campus farm.

To all: Keep up the good work. Your time and efforts are much appreciated.

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When your newspaper folds like an accordion

It’s been half a day since red ink killed my withering newspaper in Montgomery County, Md.

Despite positive, but hedged, assessments we heard the last several months, we found out today that the whole operation had been coughing up money for years.

The CEO left seven weeks ago, and was never replaced. That was one more big clue that we were in jeopardy, which was easy to sense anyway.

In an all-hands-on-deck meeting on Friday morning, a top executive from the home office delivered the fatal swing of the hatchet.

Meetings like this, with an executive no one ever sees or hears about otherwise, are never to deliver good news, so we knew. It’s never: Congratulations, team, on this year’s editorial contest prizes. Or: Advertising revenue has gushed like an oil geyser, and we’re spreading the wealth. We’d have even settled for hearing that a hiring freeze has been lifted.

“Limped along” doesn’t describe how The Gazette survived the last few years. I think of the knight with hacked-off limbs claiming “it’s just a flesh wound” in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Reporter positions were sliced. The web desk was condensed. A cartoonist and highly read columnist — the last one left — were axed as our freelance budgets were gutted. A top editor was sent home after finding out his position was eliminated. A photographer was reassigned to practical oblivion. Coverage of an adjoining county was zapped; the office found out as the last issue was printed.

By the end, to cover a county of more than 1 million people, we were down to three regional reporters (for crime, the county, and education) and one beat reporter for each of our five editions — except for one edition with 1.5 reporters and one edition with no reporter for months, thanks to that hiring freeze.

Editors picked up tasks from another unfilled newsroom position — hours of compiling calendar listings and police logs, taking over the Scout tour. Three photographers documented dozens of graduations, but couldn’t get to them all. Some weeks, the layout/copy desk was down to two people to put out five editions one day and two the next.

The biggest shame was the death by neglect of one of Maryland’s best newspapers, a separate publication out of a portion of our newsroom.

For a while, that publication, The Gazette of Politics & Business, covered state government in Annapolis better and smarter than the higher-profile Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. News scoops and an edgy reporters’ notebook column, written by knowledgeable, hustling, plugged-in reporters, made the paper a must-read every Friday.

Then came retrenchment and retreat. Three reporter positions dropped to two, then one. The State House post was eliminated altogether.

The Friday paper stuck around in ghost form. It had no reporters left to gather original news, so stories from the Montgomery Gazette papers on Wednesday were repackaged simply as a vehicle to publish pages of legal ads each week. It was unclear if anyone noticed.

The end for the faux Friday paper — rebranded as Business Gazette — didn’t come soon enough. The sadness was entirely for what once was.

In recent days, no one was surprised if Doomsday was about to come around the corner. Still, there was hope, always hope.

We received an email directive Thursday morning to report to a meeting on Friday. A few people tried to pump employees on the business side for details, but got nowhere. Our photo editor, setting up a sound system in the conference room, noticed a banner newly hung on the wall behind the lectern. It said “Gazette Newspapers — If it’s important to you, it’s important to us.”

Aha. Maybe we’ll be OK. Who would have an upbeat slogan as a backdrop to announce deflating news? We thought we had sleuthed something comforting — until we found out that another employee had found the banner and hung it up on her own.

With the room packed Friday morning, the executive apologized for leaving our newspaper in limbo for several weeks after our CEO left for another job. During (and before) that time, he said, local and corporate officials were doing their best to figure out which pieces of our multi-part company could be successfully marketed, and to whom.

First, he announced that three papers in Southern Maryland and a set of 12 military publications had been sold to a media organization with other papers in Maryland.

A sister paper in Fairfax County, Va., was being acquired by a second media company.

And the Gazette newspapers in Montgomery County (population 1 million) and Prince George’s County (population 900,000) in Maryland…

Will be closed. This week.

Sixty-nine people will be out of a job.

A human resources official who spoke next acknowledged that many of us might be too numb to absorb his presentation on transition details. He laid out what euphemists might call “separation agreements” that, as far as these things go, sound pretty good.

A roomful of newspeople rallied to ask pretty good, pointed questions, such as: Why would Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos even buy The Gazette if he has shown no interest in community news? Stories about him pouring millions of dollars into The Washington Post’s newsroom have been constant, while The Gazette, which needed help, has been unaffected.

In that 2013 sale, the Post got “financial runway,” as Bezos likes to say. The Gazette got frustrating silence.

The numbers never worked, the executive told us newly laid-off staffers. The Gazette had been losing money for years. No matter the scenario, no one wanted to buy the papers, he said.

We were told that there was an 11:30 a.m. embargo on the news, so the executive could drive to Fairfax and give a talk there. Even though the Post and other publications already had written stories about the closure and sent links on Twitter while the meeting was underway, we were prevented from breaking our own sad news.

The Post later reported that former Gazette owner Davis Kennedy said he made an offer through a broker to buy the paper, but one of our colleagues familiar with attempts to sell The Gazette said the paper didn’t get such an offer. Staffers were left to wonder if an actual rescue attempt was ignored.

By then, our focus was on gathering our stuff and our emotions as we went through the mechanical processes of shutting down a newsroom. Reporters scrambled to gather clips ahead of a 2 p.m. lockout on their computers. A skeleton crew for the final issues did legwork for their final stories, but needed some decompression time before they felt up to writing them.

We laughed about press packets coming in from the American Accordionists’ Association on the day The Gazette folded.

I thought about how jarring it was to pull a plug on decades of being a community source of opinion and news large and small — the freshly shot graduation photos that might not get printed, letters to the editor that were close to publication after rounds of fact-checks and edits but won’t get there.

Shortly after the end was announced, I took a call from a mother who has wept each time she has called me the last few weeks, still grieving the sudden loss of her teenage son a decade ago. She wondered if the photos she submitted from a lacrosse game in his memory would get in this week’s edition. The shutdown of the paper gave her a new reason to be upset.

The community has lost a source of valuable dissemination of life’s bits and pieces — calendar listings, business briefs, people features, oodles of sports news and photos — as well as watchdog coverage of government and the school system, and an editorial voice.

Before I left the newsroom on Friday, I learned what a reporter staying on for the makeshift last edition was working on — a story about the death of 92-year-old Earle Hightower, who founded The Gazette in 1959.

Hightower died four days before his newspaper did. One of his relatives said it’s better that he’ll never know.

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Statements, honors, conventions: What the board did, and discussed

ICYMI, as the acronymists like to say…

Here is a recap of the April 18 national SPJ board meeting in Indianapolis. Not everyone has the time or patience to watch an hours-long meeting by livestream, but several of these topics will interest SPJ members.

Everything we discussed and voted on is part of a board packet with greater details on most topics.

1 – SPJ President Dana Neuts gave a report (p. 2 in the packet) on some of the things that have happened during her time in office or that are in the works. It’s worth a read. For example: the number of public statements SPJ has issued since improving its communications process, the number of communities (like chapters, but related to common interests) SPJ now has, translations of the new SPJ Code of Ethics into other languages and specific efforts to focus on diversity.

2 – An update on what SPJ is doing to improve its technology. It’s spelled out in a memo from the fall (p. 17) and an update memo from April (p. 58).

3 – SPJ is doing pretty well financially (an explanation by Executive Director Joe Skeel, with specifics, is on p. 21). The board unanimously approved a $1.18 million spending plan for fiscal year 2016 — up 9.7 percent from the current year. Revenue is expected to be $1.21 million, up 2 percent from the current year.

4 – Four new chapters were chartered (p. 36): American University in Bulgaria, University of Massachusetts, Nova Southeastern and California State Polytechnic University. That’s right – there is now an SPJ chapter in Bulgaria.  It joins two other SPJ international chapters — one in Qatar and one in the United Arab Emirates. There is also one virtual chapter – at Ashford University.

5 – The ballot is filling up for SPJ national offices. As it stands now, there will be a contested election for secretary-treasurer (p. 37), which is usually a stepping stone toward becoming president. [I plan to run again for Region 2 director. Anyone else who would like to run for this or any other office should email Sonny Albarado at salbarado@spj.org.]

6 – If you’re interested in a brief status report from the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board: p. 38.

7 – For a status report from SPJ staff at headquarters: p. 40. Some highlights: SPJ is hiring new employees as we are hired to help run other journalism organizations (p. 42); SPJ has developed a good relationship with Google for training activities (p. 45); there will be more training to help delegates understand what happens at the national convention (p. 50).

8 – Why is SPJ’s national convention almost always in September? Executive Director Joe Skeel has laid out the various factors (p. 51). It’s hard to balance the competing interests, such as school calendars and the season for the best hotel rates. Skeel noted that certain cities fill the criteria we want (appeal, food options, geography, meeting space, airport proximity) much better than others. The board agreed to have HQ staff investigate options with higher room rates (i.e., $225 instead of $175). That might add places such as New York City back into the mix, adding benefits that could outweigh costs. Stay tuned.

9 – The staff looked into the idea of extending the postgraduate discount membership rate ($37.50 instead of $75 a year) from three years to four years (p. 54). There was no strong feeling either way, so the board left it alone.

10 – Speaking of communications… When should SPJ speak (p. 59)? Should we issue statements about the deaths of journalists? If they’re prominent? If they’re killed while working? Should we comment on acts of terrorism involving journalists or newsrooms? This was a lengthy, lively debate, but there were no clear answers. My suggestion was for us to start with one question: When can we make a difference? At other times, we can be part of the discussion through social media, which might serve the same purpose.

11 – And speaking of statements… SPJ’s First Amendment advocacy usually is limited to matters of a free press and sometimes free speech. But we ended up weighing in on a freedom of religion issue, with a statement, when Indiana passed its Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In this case, SPJ spoke as an Indiana entity and employer, stating our opposition to discrimination. (Read President Dana Neuts’ very transparent blog post about the internal SPJ debate and dissent.) This sparked more board discussion about when we should speak, and, in particular, how we should handle a comparable situation that might lie ahead. Louisiana has its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the works. This could become an SPJ matter again because our 2016 national convention will be in New Orleans. Also, the national board might meet there in the spring before the convention. Moving the convention could put SPJ out hundreds of thousands of dollars, which would hurt the organization greatly. But we are thinking of moving the board meeting, and telling leaders in Louisiana what we would do and why. Again, stay tuned.

12 – 41 percent of SPJ members have no representation in votes taken at the national convention. That’s because they don’t belong to chapters, which send delegates to vote on matters such as the SPJ Code of Ethics update last year or bylaws changes, or the occasional other weighty topic, such as whether to stop giving a Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2012, the system changed to allow all SPJ members to vote on elections for national officers, but the system has not changed on business items – which are difficult to put out to vote in advance, since they are often amended on the floor. Anyway, a committee (including me) is going to look at how to address the imbalance (p. 62). Feedback on this thorny issue is welcome.

13 – The national board agreed to add $30,000 into a new advocacy (“Legal Offense”) fund (p. 69).

14 – As mentioned above, a new policy says that convention delegates will get more training. It also sets guidelines for transparency in convention business and election. For example, vote totals must be given after a vote, which didn’t always happen (p. 75).

15 – Another contentious topic was whether to change the procedure for selecting the Wells Memorial Key, SPJ’s highest honor. A committee recommended giving the full 23-member national board the final say, but past winners and some other opponents objected. A compromise is that it will become a function of the Executive Committee (with seven members), rather than just the officers (five people). Also, the full board will get the list of nominees to review each year, as well as a running list of 10 years’ worth of nominations. Part of the debate was about how to broaden the pool of nominations and honor diversity. The full board will decide the winners of other SPJ awards. (p. 76)

That’s not a full account of the meeting, but it’s pretty close. Also check out President Neuts’ more timely and concise recap.

 

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As Buzzfeed might say: 23 things from the SPJ board packet for this weekend

Items in the packet for Saturday’s SPJ national board meeting include (watch from home via livestream starting at 9 a.m.; the pages note where to find the item in the packet):

1 – There will be five Ted Scripps Leadership Institute sessions in SPJ’s next fiscal year (p. 24). The places and dates haven’t been announced yet, other than: Region 10 in July, Region 5 in August and Region 6 in November.

2 – SPJ expects to have a $1.2 million budget for the coming year (p. 25).

3 – There are four new chapters seeking to be chartered, including American University in Bulgaria (p. 36). Only one chapter is being considered for inactivation (the number might grow when this year’s annual reports come in – or don’t come in).

4 – At least 14 people have committed to run for positions on the national board – including two for secretary/treasurer (p. 37). A few others who are considering running are named here, too. [Editor’s note: I am planning to run for re-election as Region 2 director. If anyone who would like to run for that or any other national SPJ position, contact Nominations Committee Chairman Sonny Albarado at salbarado@spj.org.]

5 – The Sigma Delta Chi Foundation had $12.3 million in holdings as of Jan. 31, 2015 (p. 38). Also, SPJ and SDX are working on a transition of a new division of duties and responsibilities.

6 – Did you know SPJ is helping to manage other journalism associations? Read the list. (p. 42) SPJ Executive Director Joe Skeel says this “further cement[s] SPJ’s role in the journalism landscape: to be the ‘umbrella’ organization that helps other groups better reach their mission.”

7 – SPJ and other journalism organizations are talking about ways to make it easy for people to join multiple groups at once (p. 43).

8 – The next SPJ JournCamp – a day of professional training – will be June 13 in New York City (p. 45). Other cities being considered: San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Houston or Dallas, New Orleans and Boston.

9 – “Since September, SPJ has distributed 48 news releases and statements…. The topics that have garnered the most traditional and social media attention are SPJ’s statement on the Charlie Hebdo attack; our statement and other Tweets regarding the FOI Improvement Act; our statement regarding the Columbia Journalism Review’s Rolling Stone report; and our statements regarding Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s attempt at creating a state-run news service.” (p. 46)

10 – For the first time, SPJ collaborated with several other journalism organizations in judging SPJ’s New America Award. Our partners included: the Asian American Journalists Association, Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Native American Journalists Association and National Association of Hispanic Journalists (p. 48).

11 – There will be a stronger effort this year to train delegates to the national convention, so they’re familiar with procedures and protocol (p. 50).

12 – Why is the national convention in September every year? It’s complicated – but not mandatory (p. 51).

13 – The post-graduate membership rate is available for three years. There is talk of extending it to four (p. 54).

14 – SPJ now has five communities, which are groups related by a common thread, other than geography (p. 56).

15 – When should SPJ issue a statement about the death of a journalist? (p. 59)

16 – About 41 percent of SPJ’s members do not belong to a chapter (including 38 percent in Region 2), which means they aren’t represented by a delegate on business matters at the national convention. A group is going to look at ways of giving that 41 percent representation. Again, it’s complex and there are no easy answers (p. 62).

17 – The pro/student membership breakdown for Region 2 is 597 pro (78 percent) and 172 student (22 percent). The largest chapter in the region is Washington, D.C., Pro, with 146 members (p. 67).

18 – The method for deciding on SPJ awards (Distinguished Teaching, Ethics, Fellows of the Society, and others) might change this year (p. 76).

19 – The SPJ Awards and Honors Committee studied whether any SDX awards given to NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams should be revoked, in light of his six-month suspension (p. 103)

20 – The SPJ Diversity Committee is working on a way to pay tribute to former SPJ President Reggie Stuart through a minority management training program (p. 111).

21 – The SPJ Ethics Committee and the International Community have worked together to translate the new SPJ Code of Ethics into several foreign languages (p. 112).

22 – Since November, the SPJ Legal Defense Fund Committee has considered six cases of legal action, but didn’t award any grants (p. 121).

23 – The SPJ Student Community is gathering information and feedback about internships, which are becoming rarer because of concerns about labor law (p. 123).

 

 

 

 

 

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Tech upgrade for SPJ

The SPJ national board agreed on Tuesday (Nov. 18) to spend some money – $32,000 to improve the society’s technology systems.

As a memo on the project described, SPJ’s technology has three parts – an in-house database (called iMIS), a hosting provider and a website.

The database and the website were launched at around the same time in the mid-1990s and were not integrated.

“Because our database wasn’t set up correctly in the first place, upgrades and web integration proved more difficult,” the memo from HQ says. “Over the years, those upgrades and integrations have led to a tangled web that complicate[s] day to day operations.”

One specific example is registrations for SPJ’s national conference, which have to be entered manually.

The project that the national board approved will create “one cohesive platform for almost everything we do,” the memo says.

This will lead to enhanced features on the website and more efficient, improved use of the database (this is boiling down the explanation greatly).

The project will happen in three parts. The first part will take four to six weeks. The second part will take six to nine weeks. If all goes according to plan, the improved member website will be available in late 2015.

This was the second time the national board has met by Skype. The meeting lasted about 13 minutes.

Sixteen of the 23 members of the national board participated in the call.

The vote in favor of the project and expenditure was 13-0. Those voting in favor were: me, Paul Fletcher, Lynn Walsh, Sue Kopen Katcef, Bill McCloskey, Alex Tarquinio, Jordan Gass-Poore’, Brett Hall, Becky Tallent, Michael Koretzky, Joseph Radske, Rob McLean, and Tom Johnson.

Mike Reilley and Patricia Gallagher Newberry were on the call, but didn’t vote. As president, Dana Neuts also didn’t vote. The president typically votes only to break a tie.

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Ethics code highlights: So, what changed?

Maybe the updated SPJ Ethics Code is no longer a front-burner issue six weeks after it was approved (Sept. 6, by a voice vote). But I think it’s still worth highlighting what was changed.

My past posts showing proposed changes to the code, draft by draft, line by line, and my thoughts on them, might have been too busy and overwhelming for the average person. For example, this.

Some people followed along intently with as much wonkiness as I had, but at this year’s convention in Nashville, more people wanted something more boiled down and digestible.

With that in mind, here are several of the most noticeable differences in the new version:

• The preamble was reworked, but the different wording doesn’t have any substantially different ideas.

• In a few places, “journalists” has been replaced by “journalism.” Presumably, the idea is to include anyone who practices journalism — which is more important than trying to define journalists.

• A new line: (Each line in the code is prefaced with “Journalists should”) “Take responsibility for their work.” You could call this “the anti-Judith Miller” line. Miller, formerly of The New York Times, once said: “W.M.D. – I got it totally wrong. The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them – we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong. I did the best job that I could.”

• A new line: “Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.” This is worth emphasizing and absorbing. Too often, I’ve heard, “It’s no big deal. It’s for the web. We’ll fix it later.”

• An enhanced standard, added: “Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.” This is a commonly used test for granting anonymity, but is frequently ignored in Washington, D.C., where anonymity is an overused crutch. [Note: Steve Buttry argues, correctly, that sources are “confidential,” not “anonymous,” when we know their names but shield their identities.]

• Examples deleted: “Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.” The code used to say “Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.” The argument for the cut was: Why the need for examples? And what if something is left out? I think the examples spark an inner review that can be illuminating. Prompts help us see stereotyping we didn’t realize we were doing.

• A watering down: The old code said: “Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or content.” The new code says: “Label advocacy and commentary.” The new, weaker language is hazier and less meaningful.

• A simple, concise, powerful addition: “Never plagiarize” is now followed by “Always attribute.”

• A smart addition: “Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”

• An even smarter addition: “Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.” Many newspapers print lists of arrests, and don’t have initiative, time or staff to follow up on adjudications. In the age of the Internet search engine, this presents a huge ethical problem.

• An excellent, more forceful rewording: Old – “avoid bidding for news.” New – “do not pay for access to news.” TV networks run roughshod over ethics by paying sources, then rationalizing it as “licensing fees” – which, coincidentally, always come with exclusive interviews. Under the old wording, this was acceptable, as long there was no competitor trying to pay that same source.

• An expanded heading, recognizing an important concept: Old – “Be Accountable.” New – “Be Accountable and Transparent.”

• Stronger language on corrections: From “Admit mistakes and correct them promptly” to “Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.” A cryptic correction buried in the back of the paper isn’t enough.

***

What’s not in the new code:

• Linking: It’s something I hadn’t thought about until I read Buttry’s convincing argument. He writes: “It’s the best way to attribute in digital content. It provides depth and context. A culture of linking is a strong measure to help prevent plagiarism and fabrication.” In Nashville, the arguments against linking were peculiar. One journalist talked about working in a dangerous setting, where she could be punished for showing where she got information. Others balked at forcing journalists to link. Actually, no one would be forced to do anything – the code is almost entirely “Journalists should…” Add “whenever possible or practical,” if tempering it makes you more comfortable.

• Suicide coverage. The Ethics Committee proposed: “Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place.” I spoke out strongly against this reference when I read it. First, it singles out suicide, rather than calling for care in reporting on any death. Second, the subtext is that suicide remains a taboo topic to be avoided whenever possible. This is an outdated way of thinking, perpetuating the myth of stigma attached to suicide. Actually, suicide is a serious mental health problem that should be covered as much as possible, remaining sensitive while covering a person’s life and death. Finally, there was an unintended meaning as it was written: Private suicides require caution, but public suicides do not. The SPJ national board agreed it should be removed. After further objections in Nashville, it was cut before the code reached delegates for a final vote.

• Anonymous online comments: This is a particular peeve of mine, and I figured that, as part of the code update, it was worth trying to get SPJ to be a leader in ethical thinking. Anonymous online comments too often are corrosive and harmful to an atmosphere of thoughtful, civil debate. They turn the ethics of responsible comment (letters to the editor are edited in advance for libel; identities are almost always required and confirmed) on their head. So, I proposed adding: “Encourage a civil exchange of public opinions. Recognize the potential harm of allowing anonymous online comments.” There was some support within the national board and even more in Nashville, but unresolvable dissent on what to target and how to say it. I didn’t pursue the matter further before convention delegates, which might have prolonged debate. Maybe I’ll try again in the future.

***

Epilogue: It was particularly interesting to look back on the start and end of the code update process. A year ago (and even before that), some people clamored that the code – last updated in 1996 – was woefully out of date, largely because it didn’t address the new phenomenon of social media.

I was skeptical at the time about the need for any update, but especially one based on that reasoning. I thought the code’s principles of ethical decision-making work fine on any platform. Information’s distribution channels didn’t matter; the ethics that went into gathering, compiling and presenting the information did.

Still, the code update process moved ahead.

But, go figure. There’s one more thing missing from the new code: Any reference to social media.

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Soviet-style information control

Kathryn Foxhall, a member of the Washington, D.C., Pro chapter board and longtime freelance reporter, was one of two individuals and two groups to receive a Sunshine Award this month at this year’s SPJ national convention in Nashville.

Foxhall was the driving force behind a coalition of journalism groups, led by SPJ, joining to speak out against a pervasive problem: federal agencies’ public information officers who hamper or thwart journalists from getting information of public interest and value.

During the closing dinner at the convention, Foxhall gave a short, punchy acceptance speech promoting freedom of access to information. One of my tablemates — a former SPJ president — liked the speech as much as I did and said SPJ ought to make it available on the web.

Foxhall provided me a written copy a few days later. Here it is.

—-

Thank you, wonderful journalists.
If my work can somehow serve as a rallying point on this thing, I will take it and run with it.
But in reality, nothing would have happened without a number of strong SPJ people.
— Sonny Albarado who put it in a presidential column;
— Dave Cuillier who made it a major SPJ theme;
— Linda Petersen, former FOI chair, whose ferocious anger on the local level serves as a model;
— And Carolyn Carlson whose surveys have been foundational.
So thank you all.

Most of the restrictions in public and private entities that prohibit staff and reporters from talking without notifying the authorities  – “going through the press office”— are new, historically, and they are radical.
We are moving toward something like the Soviet Union through cultural diffusion. Diffusion of the idea that silencing or controlling most people is appropriate.
It’s a huge ethical issue for journalism.
What is the quality of reporting done under guard at the behest of the powerful?  Are we, journalists, putting up with it? Or colluding with it?
We go through PIOs and talk to people and get stories that are interesting, accurate, possibly ahead of the pack.
The problem is that a staff person in the agency could blow our story out of the water, if they could talk freely. Or point to 10 bigger stories.
And we just never know it.
Millions of people can’t talk to us. How is it even responsible to assume we are making up for that with hard work and skills?
Some of the missed perspectives cause ongoing public misunderstanding.
Some are tragic.
No one will do anything about it if we don’t.
We need sustained determination from you all to re-create the culture where such restraints are unthinkable.
Thank you.

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And finally… more edits to ethics code draft

Do you remember this headline from a few days ago: “New ethics code draft is REALLY final, for now“?

It was mostly true, but not entirely.

The post was meant to highlight the last round of changes by the SPJ Ethics Committee to the proposed code of ethics. The post was based on a marked-up version that was distributed and posted on Aug. 28.

However, I noticed that some small changes were made, but weren’t marked up on that version.

In addition, the committee, for the first time, has shared two passages that have fairly significant changes — the code’s preamble and a disclaimer that was created about four years ago.

The easiest way way for me to show all of the proposed changes, to all parts of the code, was to update a previous critique that I did on Aug. 20. I updated it today (Sept. 1).

Hopefully, that’s it for proposed changes. Now, it’s up to delegates at the convention to make further edits.

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New ethics code draft is REALLY final, for now

On Aug. 20, the SPJ national board met by Skype to consider endorsing the Ethics Committee’s third and final proposal for updating the SPJ Code of Ethics.

The board voted 11-4, with one abstention, to endorse the draft, after agreeing that a newly added reference to coverage of suicide should be stricken.

The board also directed the Ethics Committee to go back over its latest draft and clean it up, eliminating typos and changing passive constructions to active.

On Aug. 28, the board got a copy of that reworked draft. A copy also was posted on the Ethics Committee’s blog.

However, unlike the document distributed to the national board on Thursday afternoon, the version posted on the blog doesn’t indicate what final changes were made.

The marked-up versions of each draft have made it much easier to follow what changes were made.

Since only a handful of passages were changed in this final editing process, I’ll paste them here, highlighting the changes that were made since the committee’s third draft was released. (On the other hand, some people might prefer seeing and absorbing the clean version.)

 

Here are the final edits (bold indicates additions, strike-through indicates deletions):

Under “Seek Truth and Report It”

• Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it for those who may face danger, retribution or other harm.  Do not grant aAnonymity should not be granted merely as license to criticize. Pursue alternative sources before granting anonymity. Explain why anonymity was granted.

• Avoid undercover or other surreptitious reporting methods unless except when traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.

• Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.

• Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we are seldom heard.

• Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual news content.  Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.

Under “Minimize Harm”

• Consider the implications of identifying juvenile suspects, victims of sex crimes, and criminal suspects before they face are legal chargesd.  Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. be informed.

Under “Be Accountable and Transparent”

• Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.  Explain Ccorrections and clarifications should be explained carefully and thoroughly.

 

For the first time in any of the Ethics Committee’s four drafts, a disclaimer has been added:

The SPJ Code of Ethics is a living document, a statement of principles supported by additional explanations and position papers (at spj.org) that address changing journalistic practices. It is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium. The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context. It is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable.

This doesn’t exactly qualify as a minor edit for typos or verb construction, but it is not entirely new. It takes pieces of the current disclaimer:

The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code is intended not as a set of “rules” but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable.

About four years ago, the Ethics Committee wrote the current disclaimer to address frequent, inappropriate attempts, particularly by lawyers, to frame the code as “law” or “rules” that journalists had to follow. That distorts the code’s actual purpose, as a set of guidelines and considerations for journalists before they make decisions. I’ve seen the disclaimer cited many times; I think it has been effective.

On Thursday, when I saw the new version of the disclaimer added to the committee’s final draft, without any references to the current disclaimer, I asked that it be given the markup treatment like everything above it. I hope that’s done before delegates review it in Nashville next week.

Remember that everything in the final draft is subject to change at the convention, under scrutiny of the delegates (of which I am one). Here are suggestions I recently made for further edits.

 

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