There is no democracy without a free press

Today, hundreds of newspapers across the country are publishing editorials to fight back against repeated attacks on the media. The brainchild of The Boston Globe, newspapers were asked to publish their own editorials that highlight the dangers of the assault on the press.

The Society of Professional Journalists stands in solidarity with these newspapers and applauds their efforts to explain the importance of the work they do every day. We know that without them, the country would be a much darker, more secretive place.

After all, it’s journalists who uncover stories of children being abused by people in positions of authority; of drinking water being contaminated because regulations and laws weren’t followed; of the misuse of money and power by government officials and agencies.

Freedom of the press was included in the writing of the First Amendment for good reason. Our founding fathers knew that it is human nature for those in positions of power to sometimes abuse that power. For democracy to thrive, they believed it was important to ensure there would always be a watchdog – the press – to maintain balance and, when needed, protect citizens from their own government by helping them obtain information. (As the Washington Post tagline states: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”)

Journalism is a public service. Journalism is done for the public good. We’re taught as journalists to show the story, not tell the story. The best way to show the public that we are not “the enemy” is by telling accurate, fair, truthful stories. By showing that we care about the people and communities we cover. By acting ethically at all times.

But while a majority of journalists do just that, they remain at risk. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 27 journalists have been attacked so far in the United States in 2018. Worldwide, according to Reporters Without Borders, 50 journalists, 10 citizen journalists and 3 media assistants have been killed in 2018.

Journalists should not have to consider hiring security guards to accompany them to political rallies. Journalists in every city and town across America should not worry for their safety every time they go out to cover a story.

A segment of the American public is clearly angry about what they describe as “fake news” or too much opinion and not enough facts. Journalists don’t understand why the average citizen struggles to tell the differences among news, opinion, commentary and analysis, or to realize that not every journalist produces each kind of journalism.

The United Nations Human Rights Chief said earlier this week the numbers of incidences of violence and death against journalists will increase worldwide if the rhetoric does not stop. Other countries look to the United States to set the precedent, he said, adding that, “The U.S. creates a demonstration effect, which then is picked up by other countries where the leadership tends to be more authoritarian [in] character or aspires to be authoritarian.”

No profession is perfect. Journalism is no exception. But a United States without a free press is not a place most Americans would want to live. Simply put, there is no democracy without a free press.


Retooled SPJ staff is ready to confront new attacks on our free press

President Trump continues his verbal assaults on the press at rallies and in tweets on almost a daily basis. But the Society of Professional Journalists is responding the best way it knows how: by providing the training, networking and professional development that journalists need to continue uncovering the truth, holding the powerful accountable and perpetuating its role as a pillar of democracy.

SPJ is working toward those goals with largely a brand-new staff, with whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the Ted Scripps leadership training program in Indianapolis last weekend. Make no mistake: this is an impressive and experienced group of people. Their passion, talent and energy will propel SPJ forward in its mission to improve and protect journalism.

The new hires are: Director of Development Larry Messing, Quill Editor and Training/Education Manager Monica Williams, Director of Programs Marilyn Garateix, Director of Conferences and Events, Basharat Saleem, Manager of Membership and Chapters Caroline Escobar, Director of Finance and Administration Amy Wong, and Communications Coordinator Isaac Taylor. Kudos to our new executive director, Alison Bethel McKenzie, for assembling such a laudable group.

They join Director of Communications and Marketing Jennifer Royer, Communications Coordinator Marina Cinami, Program Coordinator Christine Cordial, Creative Director Tony Peterson, Office Manager Linda Hall, and Web Administrator Billy O’Keefe as the engine behind SPJ’s day-to-day operations.

SPJ also recruited longtime Associated Press editor Rod Hicks for a brand-new position, Journalist on Call, to address the dwindling trust in the media by some segments of the public. From the SPJ press release on Rod’s hiring:

Hicks will serve as something of an ombudsman, helping journalists understand why the public doesn’t trust them and what they can do to re-earn more trust. He will also spend time with the general public, local officials and community groups to explain the important role ethical journalism plays in society. A great deal of the focus will center on how the media and public can work together in crisis situations. 

Rod is representing SPJ this week at the National Association of Black Journalists conference in Detroit, and will continue travelling around the country, reporting back to U.S. newsrooms what he learns in his travels. No other journalism organization has such a position, and I couldn’t be prouder that SPJ is leading the charge in working to restore trust in fact-based news reporting.

SPJ now has the most racially and culturally diverse staff in its 109-year history. I want to thank the staff who preceded our new team for their years of hard work and wish them well in their new endeavors.


SPJ’s 6.21 Day of Giving: Journalism Needs You!

At a time when journalists are called “enemy of the people,” fired for doing their jobs and forced to compromise their ethics, it’s crucial to take a step back and remind ourselves of the important and meaningful work that journalists are doing all over the country. Go online, open a newspaper, or turn on your TV set or radio and you’ll find journalists seeking truth and reporting it – the first tenet of SPJ’s Code of Ethics – challenging spin and false statements by government authorities, and revealing the impact of public policies on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

It’s the kind of work that has become a beacon for journalists throughout the world. In May, I attended a World Press Freedom event hosted by Nepali-American media in the Washington D.C. area. They are covering the news of Nepali communities in the area and helping journalists in Nepal cover the news under unfavorable circumstances. As I write this, the SPJ Code of Ethics is being translated into Nepali, and will join Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish as languages that share these tenets of ethical journalism.

The incredible work that journalists do takes center stage, literally, each spring as SPJ recognizes excellence in news reporting at its Sigma Delta Chi awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., through awards banquets hosted by SPJ chapters, and during Mark of Excellence awards ceremonies for outstanding student journalism.

Try not feeling inspired or energized after attending the SDX awards. This year, we recognized stories that exposed racial bias and unfair treatment in the war on drugs, uncovered the price of homelessness in one American city and revealed the hidden scourge of domestic violence in one of the wealthiest communities in the country. The work SPJ honored had undeniable impact, from national stories about Harvey Weinstein that prompted his arrest to local stories about sexual misconduct at a state capitol that led to systematic change in government policy.

There were international stories such as the “Paradise Papers” investigation revealing offshore tax havens of the global elite and regional stories such as the questionable financing of a casino project that voters halted after journalists did their jobs.

This is the kind of work that the Society of Professional Journalists honors once a year but supports every single day by training journalists, funding large-scale projects and paying for legal battles. It’s also why SPJ needs your support. This Thursday, June 21, is SPJ’s Day of Giving, when we raise money and awareness for all the good work that the Society does. Go to spj.org/dayofgiving.asp and get involved. Journalism needs you!


The ‘power’ of respect in the newsroom

I was honored to represent SPJ this month at “The Power Shift Summit,” a meeting of more than 100 media leaders in Washington, D.C. who came together with a shared purpose: “to address the problem of sexual misconduct in newsrooms and to identify solutions for creating meaningful and sustainable change.”

The invitation-only event, held at the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center, was organized as a series of discussions featuring leaders from all media platforms. Journalists who have reported stories about sexual misconduct, and victims of that misconduct, discussed the impact of the coverage to date. The event was trending on Twitter under #PowerShiftSummit for most of the day.

The end of the summit offered some solutions as to what newsrooms and media organizations are doing to deal with emerging cases, and what systemic changes are needed for the future. They included educating young journalists about their rights to a safe and hostile-free workplace, involving human resources as a partner in developing and enforcing sexual misconduct policies, including men in any and all conversations about sexual misconduct, and making sure sexual harassment awareness and prevention is an ongoing topic.

One solution stood out: creating a culture of respect in the newsroom. Too often, rudeness, hostility and boorishness can open the door to more serious misconduct. In short, management should not tolerate seemingly minor acts of bad behavior and stop them from spreading or worsening. In the words of some of the panelists (and yes, these are exact quotes) “Don’t be an a**hole. Don’t hire a**holes.”

As members of SPJ, each of us can serve as an example of what an ethical, respectful and tolerant journalist should be. We can be leaders of good behavior in our newsrooms and in the field. We can take steps to see that our workplaces not only have sexual misconduct policies in place but that they are enforcing them. We can share SPJ’s sexual harassment resources page with your colleagues and encourage them to speak up about any abuse they see or experience. Working together, we can we stop the scourge of sexual harassment.

Postscript: I was delighted to see two members of the Sigma Delta Chi board (SPJ’s foundation) at the summit: Evelyn Hsu, representing the Maynard Institute as its executive director, and Sonya Ross, representing the Associated Press as its race and ethnicity editor. Both serve the SDX board well.


Trust and the Media in a New Era

How can the press regain the public’s trust?

That’s a question some of the country’s top journalists attempted to answer this week at the inaugural Poynter Journalism Ethics Summit in Washington, D.C. I was privileged to attend and want to share with you some highlights of the event.

The all-day gathering kicked off with the release of Poynter’s media trust survey called “You’re Fake News!” It confirmed what many of us in the media have experienced or sensed: “Republicans and Trump supporters have far more negative attitudes toward the press” (19% confidence in media reporting) than do Democrats and Trump opponents (74% confidence)

What was truly disturbing was some of the overall findings: 44 percent of those surveyed said they believe journalist make up stories about Trump, and 31 percent agreed that the media are the “enemy of the people” and “keep political leaders from doing their job.” Nearly two-thirds of Trump supporters believe those statements, the survey found.

Perhaps the worst of all: 16 percent of Trump opponents and 42 percent of his supporters said that government should “be able to stop a news media outlet from publishing a story that government officials say is biased or inaccurate.”

So what can be done about all of this?

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, offered a three-step plan to restore trust, which I shared on Twitter: 1. Don’t oppose Trump, oppose a political style where facts and truth are expendable. 2. Focus on people’s troubles, not issues created to get them angry. 3. Generate trust through transparency, not authority.

Poynter itself outlined several steps to move the needle toward public trust of the press:

  • Be transparent: describe your process for ensuring accuracy. Shift from “show-me” journalism to “this is why you should trust me” journalism. Have an ongoing explanation of who you are and what you do.
  • Adopt signifiers of trust outlined by The Trust Project, which offers tips to help news consumers feel confident that what they’re reading and seeing is legitimate
  • Strike a balance between the courage/confidence needed to do our work with the humility needed to listen to your audience and find out their concerns
  • Educate people about the public role journalism plays in Democracy
  • Protect and defend Democratic institutions include the First Amendment

The last one has been the mission of the Society of Professional Journalists for more than a century, and we will continue to join legal battles to preserve the rights of a free press and the free flow of information to the public.


It just keeps getting worse

It just keeps getting worse.

In the span of just a few hours on Monday, New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush and CBS/PBS broadcaster Charlie Rose joined the ever-growing dishonor roll of high-profile male journalists publicly accused of sexually harassing their female colleagues.

That Hall of Shame includes Mark Halperin, Michel Oreskes, Jann Wenner, Leon Wieseltier, Matt Zimmerman, Bill O’Reilly and the late Roger Ailes of Fox News, and many others across the media landscape we’ll never know because they are not famous or prominent enough to warrant a news story.

And this is far from over. I predict we’re going to hear a lot more stories of powerful media men taking advantage of their positions of prominence to perform unwanted acts of sexual aggression toward younger (often much younger) men and women at a point in their careers where they are the least powerful, the least influential.

How many smart, talented journalists have our industry lost because of sexual harassment? How many have left our profession, their careers cut short, because they could no longer tolerate the unwanted advances of a boss or co-worker? We’ll never know, and that might be the worst part of it all.

So what can we do? As SPJ ethics chairman Andrew Seaman wrote earlier this month, we need to create a culture where would-be harassers are too scared to act on their worst instincts.

As Seaman points out, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics calls on journalists to “expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations” and to “abide by the same high standards they expect of others.”

Here are a few other ways that might help rid journalism of the scourge of sexual harassment:

  1. Demand that your newsroom, no matter its size, has a sexual harassment policy on the books.
  2. Insist that the sexual harassment policy be acknowledged in writing as having been read by every single employee.
  3. Urge your HR department or newsroom leaders to host annual sexual harassment training for all employees.
  4. Establish a peer-support network of employees, outside the chain-of-command, that can be a go-to place for victims of sexual misconduct and that’s trained to bring reports of sexual misconduct to those who might be able to make it stop.

Meanwhile, I’ve requested that all of SPJ’s regional conferences this spring host a discussion about the issue of sexual harassment in newsrooms. And I’m urging SPJ chapters to sponsor an event about what to do when encountering sexual harassment on the job.

Hopefully these discussions – inside and outside the newsroom – can help purge the predators and protect the respectable practitioners of journalism.

 

 


#FreePressFriday to highlight link between journalism, democracy

“Power can be very addictive. And it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.”  Former President George W. Bush, February 2017

Want some evidence? Just this past week, journalists have exposed abuses of power that prompted a congressman, a Cabinet member and a powerful Hollywood producer to step down from their influential positions.

As President Trump ratchets up his attacks on the news media, it’s more important than ever to remind the public about the connection between good journalism and a healthy democracy.

That’s why SPJ is launching #FreePressFriday, a day where we highlight great quotes — like the one above — about the importance of a free press in society. We encourage you to share them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media outlets to help spread the word (or words, as the case may be) about the value of journalism.

We also encourage you to use #FreePressFriday to share news stories that have made an impact on your community. It can be an investigation into government corruption, a feature story that helped a family in need or an enterprise piece that uncovered a social injustice and prompted official action. The public should know about the great journalism that is happening every day all over the country.

The goal of #FreePressFriday is to help make that happen.

 

 


Recent Attacks Against Journalists Are Attacks Against American Freedoms

In the last several weeks journalists have been pinned against a wall, arrested, assaulted, told to get “back in your cages,” and threatened with gun violence by a sitting state governor.

The key word left out of the sentence above: American.

Those incidents happened to American journalists. American journalists working and doing their jobs in the United States, a country that has a freedom designated for the press.

If you’ve read the headlines or followed the stories on social media, you may have seen the threat of gun violence called a joke, or the event that resulted in an assault charge for a newly elected Congressman, called inappropriate unless the reporter deserved it.

These incidents are not funny and should not be dismissed. The words being spoken are also not funny and they should not be treated as jokes.

These incidents are an attack against the freedoms America was founded on and should be taken seriously.

Most importantly they need to stop. 

In the United States, the First Amendment protects a free press. This includes protecting an individual’s right to ask questions of elected officials without the threat of violence. Journalists should not be arrested or physically harmed for simply trying to do their jobs. Journalists are the eyes and ears of the public. When they are prevented from doing their jobs, the public loses and American freedom is threatened.

The United States, whether data and reality always supports it or not, is often used as an example of a free society by others around the world. This includes evaluating what a free press looks like.

Around the world, we are seeing journalists killed or physically threatened while doing their jobs. These incidents also need to be stopped and should be taken seriously. It is also why it is even more important to push back and stop the incidents happening here.

What we allow to happen on U.S. soil could set the tone for what others experience and do elsewhere, outside our borders.

These recent incidents, that include physical violence, anti-press rhetoric, and legal action are steps away from freedom. They are incidents that should not be happening in a country that was founded on protecting freedom of the press. These incidents threaten American democracy.

Right now, there is undeniable tension between journalists, news organizations, and the public. Polls continue to show the American public’s trust in media is at an all-time low.

While there are examples of reporting and journalists that may have helped contribute to that, we, as Americans, both journalists, and non-journalists, need to work together to stop this threat against our freedom.

Do we want to live in a country where people are not free to ask politicians questions? A country where the information the public receives only comes from those in power? A country where you are not free to publish information people may disagree with?

I know that is not the America I want to live in. It is also not the America people have fought hard, in some cases sacrificing their lives, to protect.

In the name of freedom, let’s stand together.


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 and Journalism Organizations Respond To Election of Donald Trump

Last week, after the election, the Society of Professional Journalists and other journalism organizations released statements reinforcing their commitment to protecting the First Amendment and fighting for the public’s right to know.

Since the election SPJ has seen an increase in donations. Some, when donating, have specifically cited the election outcome.

I want you to know that SPJ is ready to defend the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment and push for government transparency.

We hope that you will continue to join us in this fight. If you have ideas or thoughts or want to help in any way, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me. Also, if you need help donating or renewing your membership, we would gladly help with that as well.

Here is a list of statements made by journalism organizations:

Lynn Walsh is the National President for the Society of Professional Journalists. In her day job she leads the NBC 7 Investigates team in San Diego, California. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for public information. Connect with her on Twitter, @LWalsh.

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