What have we done for journalism lately?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.


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