Responding to The Red and Black controversy

Something remarkable happened in Athens, Georgia last week.

A group of student journalists — mad at what they saw as an infringment upon their editorial independence — walked out of the newsroom of The Red and Black, the independent newspaper for the University of Georgia.

They used their basic reporting skills and social media tools to create their own website and let the world know about their grievances.

It worked. In just 72 hours, their campaign forced the management of the paper to relent on just about every one of the student’s demands.

The paper’s board of directors apologized, a board member who wrote a draft memo that infuriated the students resigned and editorial control returned to the place where it was meant to be – in the hands of the student editor-in-chief.

When was the last time you ever heard of something like this happening in any newsroom, collegiate or professional?

What these students did took smarts, courage and moxie. They showed the kind of talents that will serve them well as journalists. They have my admiration.

And read all over….

As many of you know, Michael Koretzky and I have been having a very public disagreement over what SPJ’s response should have been to The Red and Black controversy.

The first thing you need to know though is that I have a lot of respect for Michael. He is completely fearless about bringing up difficult and often uncomfortable issues that others have been reluctant to raise.

That’s precisely what he’s doing in this instance, provoking a discussion that is well worth having.

I also love the way he has helped drag SPJ kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Our first SPJ webinar happened this summer because of Michael’s insistence. I helped produce it, and the results were awesome.

On The Red and Black case, though, we have an honest difference of opinion, not so much on the substance of the case but on the process of how to best do advocacy work.

Fact-finding first

A substantial amount of my time as president this year has centered around advocating for journalists, many of whom were either in trouble with police, campus administrators, lawyers, bureaucrats or elected officials.

One thing I quickly realized was that there was no one-size-fits-all strategy. Each situation required a different approach.

Sometimes I made phone calls. Sometimes I wrote letters or op-ed columns. Often it meant talking to local reporters. And most times I used social media like Facebook and Twitter to help get the word out.

My typical method though was to begin with fact-finding. One thing SPJ has taught me is the value of teamwork. So I often delegated this task to a local chapter leader or to a regional director.

So for example, when a Temple University photojournalism student was arrested this spring while taking photographs for a classroom assignment of Philadelphia Police making an arrest, we got involved.

I consulted with Philadelphia chapter president Phil Beck and Region 1 Director Luther Turmelle. In very short order we dashed off a letter to the Philadephia Police commissioner, protesting the arrest.

Be the change…

There are two basic reasons to do advocacy work. One is to feel good about yourself after having gotten off a righteous letter. The other is to actually accomplish real and meaningful change.

My preference has been the latter. Too often, journalism group bang out angry  denunciations that hit the target with a thud and go nowhere. I prefer to get under the skin of those whose behavior I’m trying to change.

Speed is not the issue…

I take pride in the fact that on many of the controversies that cropped up this year, we jumped on them right away and got a quick response.

For example, when New York City police arrested journalists who were covering an Occupy Wall Street protest, we had something drafted that very first day and we stayed on the issue for several months, even penning an open op-ed about it.

Likewise when a school board in New Jersey wanted to codify our Code of Ethics and hold tribunals to judge whether local journalists and bloggers were unethical, Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Smith and I pounced on it.

I spent a lot of time talking to the school board president directly, and in the end, SPJ helped convince the board to drop its policy — all within a matter of days.

Social media is not the issue…

At my job at The Record (not the Hackensack Record) I’m known as one of the more prolific users of social media. I do more blogging and shoot more video than most other reporters and I do my own Internet radio program.

I’ve tried to bring all those same talents to bear while advocating on behalf of SPJ. But an effective advocate needs to have a wide array of tools. And sometimes simply talking to people and asking questions can be more persuasive than tweets or letters.

Patience works…

Not all situations require blasting out instant opinions. Take, for example, the recent controversy at the University of Memphis, where a student paper had its funding cut by a third, more than any other group of campus, following controversy over some of the stories it published and other stories it chose not to cover.

One journalism group asked me to co-sign a letter of protest that simply took as gospel what the students had to say and wrote a short angry letter a day or two later.

I took a different approach. With a lot of help from Neil Ralston,  SPJ’s VP for campus affairs, we asked a lot of questions of campus administrators.

By the time were were done (this took about 10 days) I knew their position backward and forward. And we sent this letter and posted online.

But I also knew their thinking well enough to find the weak spots in their case. And like any good advocate, that’s where I applied the most pressure.

Teamwork works…

When the Red and Black controversy erupted, I turned to Neil and Michael for their advice. I encouraged Michael to do the fact-finding.

But either Michael did not understand his role or I failed to explain it to him.

I was glad when he offered to send someone to go to Athens and attend a pivotal meeting with the paper’s managers and student staff last Friday.

I was looking forward to hearing from him on what had happened and formulating a quick response.

Instead, I opened my email Saturday morning to find that Michael had gone ahead and posted his findings to his regional director’s blog. I had no clue that he was going to do that. I had been expecting him to report back to me or at least let me know what he was planning to do.

We are much powerful as a advocate for journalism when we work together. Perhaps that makes us a bit less nimble, but it also makes for a smarter and more powerful response.

Michael does not work for me. We are all volunteers in this effort called SPJ. But I do wish he had done more to work with me.

Whose speaks for SPJ?

Michael’s post presented two immediate problems.  Despite the fact that he posted to his regional blog, some people mistook it for SPJ’s position on the Red and Black controversy. One person even tweeted it as such.

Because of that confusion, I called Michael and asked him to take down the post, which he did, albeit under protest.

The president of SPJ speaks for the organization. I’ve been careful in that role to consult with others before issuing an opinion on behalf of the Society.

Getting both sides…

Michael’s post immediately came under fire from some who questioned why he did not make more of an effort to contact the management at The Red and Black to get their reaction to his findings.

Call me old school, but I still believe in the value of getting both sides of a story, whether it’s for a newspaper or a blog post.

It is, after all, what our ethics codes asks us to do. “Test the accuracy of information from all sources.”

That means interviewing all the stakeholders in a story. It does not mean waiting days for them to respond. But it does mean making the phone call and writing “Stakeholder XYZ could not be reached for comment yesterday.”

Michael tells me that’s so 20th century. I respectfully disagree. I think it remains a method that works best no matter what platform or medium we’re working on.

Can we do better?

Of course we can. With his amusing graphics and his snarky sense of humor, Michael makes some interesting suggestions on ways we can use social media as a means to apply pressure to a unfolding situation.

The Red and Black situation was unique. Most journalism controversies don’t erupt and then blow over in a span of a just a few days.

Figuring out how we do it will fall to my successor Sonny Albarado, who becomes president at our convention in September.

I’m not opposed to exploring ways we can have the speed of social media, thorough fact finding, teamwork and deliberation. But let’s get it right, and let’s work together to protect and foster journalism.



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