Posts Tagged ‘Ecuador’


Graduating from stereotypes: A marriage proposal

Leave it to me to learn the hard way about the importance of shedding cultural stereotypes.

I nearly made an embarrassing mistake earlier this month while covering the graduation ceremony of Bergen Community College.

The commencement exercises took place inside a large area that once had been used for professional hockey and basketball.

With over 2,100 graduates to chose from, it was not hard to find one interesting student on whom to focus .

The valedictorian, an aspiring art therapist, had a great story to tell when she pointed out that her graduation came exactly 10 years to the day that her mom left Ecuador to find a life of better opportunity for her two young children in northern New Jersey.

The student gave a very heartfelt, emotional speech, and I hustled into the audience to interview her mom.

So I was feeling pretty good when I returned to the floor of the arena where a publicist for the college pointed out another story: One graduate had proposed marriage to another while picking up their diplomas.

A volunteer helped me locate the couple in a sea of blue caps and gowns, and I did a quick interview.

The student was named Jess, who wore a nice red tie, told me in a husky voice about getting down on one knee. That was the signal for a group of friends to unfurl a banner that read “Will you marry me?”

The other student, named Melissa, said yes.

That was pretty nervy in front of all these people, I suggested.

“You have no idea,” Jess replied.

So I wrote the story feeling pretty good about how it turned out. But then several hours later, my editor called.

The photographer — a much better observer then me — noticed that Jess, who I identified as a guy, was a woman. Jess was short for Jessica, not Jesse.

Fortunately we fixed it before publication. But afterward, it made me realize the extent to which my cultural blinders were in place.

Granted the interview was brief, and they were both wearing gowns. But in an era where marriage equality is a hot-button topic, I should know better than to assume that “couple”  and “marriage proposal” means a man and a woman.

It drove home the point to me how important it is to consider one’s own cultural assumptions and be more observant.

Next time I’ll know better. Plus, I owe the photographer a beer.

Should SPJ broaden international memberships?

For more than a decade I served as lead mentor in Denver for a journalism exchange program run by the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship.

It’s a great program that brings journalists from other countries to work side by side with their counterparts in U.S. newsrooms.

During that time I worked with journalists from Nigeria, Ecuador, Egypt, Bulgaria, Serbia, China, Cambodia, Russia and the Gaza Strip.

By and large, they were an amazing group of people, many of whom had to exercise a fair amount of courage just to do the type of daily reporting that we here in the U.S. often take for granted.

It was a great experience and one that I’m sure will color my view point as the SPJ board takes up an important policy discussion this weekend on the Society’s approach toward prospective members who live outside the U.S.

Should we actively recruit them? Should we encourage chapters to form in other countries? Should we hold them to the same requirements we ask of domestic members and chapters?

Shortly after becoming SPJ president in September, I asked our International Journalism Committee, through its chairman Ricardo Sandoval Palos, to study this issue and make some recommendations to the board.

The Committee produced a thoughtful document that became the basis for a good discussion that the Executive Committee had on this topic during our winter meeting in Charlotte.

Now that discussion moves to the full board. When we meet in Indianapolis this weekend, I’m planning to ask the board a series of questions on this topic. My hope is that we reach enough of a consensus to help craft a formal policy later this year.

It’s a complex issue. In some countries, concepts we take for granted in the U.S. such as objectivity or acting independently are not universally embraced. In some countries, journalists operate under government imposed restrictions that make those concepts unworkable.

And yet, we live in an increasingly global society where video shot in Syria one moment becomes news in the U.S. a short time later. There’s also a real hunger out there for the training, ethics and ideals that SPJ had stood for in this country.

So we’ll have our talk. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that SPJ already has about 130 members living in other countries.

More than half are part of a thriving student chapter that former Regional Director Richard Roth helped start in Qatar a few years ago under the aegis of Northwestern University.

But the other members come from nearly 30 other countries, including Uzbekistan, India, Mexico, Canada, Morocco, Spain, England, Sweden and Luxemborg.

I believe we need a coherent strategy when it comes to membership in the rest of the world. My hope is that we can take the first steps toward that goal when  we meet in Indianapolis.

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