Posts Tagged ‘New Jersey’


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.

SPJ objects to school board’s proposed use of ethics code

We’re justifiably proud of the SPJ Code of Ethics.

It’s a well-written document that has become the gold standard of our industry. Plus it’s a useful framework for individual journalists who are trying to sort through the ethical dilemmas that seem to come our way each day.

We’re also glad when people outside of journalism take note of our code. But sometimes their admiration for the code goes a bit too far. That appears to be the case with a school board in southern New Jersey.

The Jackson School Board is contemplating a policy that would seek to enforce our code by shunning journalists whom the school board decides have acted in an unethical manner.

When I spoke to School Board President Sharon Dey last week, she told me that the proposed policy is not aimed at anyone in particular. Nor was it prompted by any recent stories about the district, she said.

I got the feeling though that the policy is aimed mostly at online journalists and bloggers. In a letter to the Asbury Park Press, she wrote about “protecting our students and our district from what could happen in the ever changing world of journalism media.”

SPJ has some concerns and objections to the policy, which we spelled out to the board in a letter that we mailed to the board earlier this week.

First, our code is a voluntary set of guidelines. It is not something that needs to be codified by any branch of government. That would be a misuse of our code, not to mention a First Amendment problem.

We are all for the school board and any member of the public expecting and demanding the kind of ethical behavior that the code spells out.

And certainly board members and the public have the right not to speak to anyone whose behavior is unethical. But you don’t need a policy to do that.

So we’ve asked the school board not to adopt the policy when it comes up for a vote on Dec. 20. Based upon a story this week in the Asbury Park Press, it appears we may have made some progress.

While we strongly disagree with the proposed policy, the people on the board seem to be earnest and well-intentioned.

So perhaps what is needed here is some honest and open dialogue between school officials and members of the local media – all media.

SPJ has offered to facilitate such a discussion. It’s my belief that it might provide a teachable moment. I hope the school board takes us up on this offer. Stay tuned.

 

Thoughts on arrests of journalists simply doing their jobs

We’ve had a flurry of incidents lately where SPJ has objected to the unwarranted arrests of journalists at street protests or crime scenes.

-In September, a television photojournalist in Milwaukee was arrested while filming a crime scene from behind a police tape.

-In October, a reporter from an alternative weekly in Nashville was swept up in a wave of several arrests made at an Occupy Nashville demonstration on a public plaza.

-Also in  October, Milwaukee Police arrested a Journal-Sentinel photographer as she took pictures of an officer arresting students who had marched into the streets off the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.

-On Nov. 1, a photographer for a Richmond, Va. magazine was arrested at an Occupy demonstration.

-On Nov. 6, police in Atlanta arrested two student journalists who were covering an Occupy Atlanta protest.

-And this week, six journalists were detained at Occupy Wall Street in New York City and two at an Occupy demonstration in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The facts and circumstances of these cases vary, but there is one significant common denominator: All the journalists whom police arrested were trying to do their jobs.

I have some empathy for police who are coping with street demonstrations or public protests. My late brother was was a police sergeant in New Jersey. We talked about his job and mine when I was covering the police beat for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver for 12 years.

Both his experience and mine taught me a respect for police officers and the difficult work they do often under chaotic circumstances.

But reporters also often have to work in chaotic situations, which seemed to be the case in three of the four cases cited here. It’s hard enough covering a street demonstration without the added complication of being subject to arrest.

I’ve covered a few riots, and believe me, they are no fun. I’ve been tear gassed, hit in the shoulder by a fist-sized chunk of ice, and dodged a rock. In one instance, a Denver homicide detective came to my rescue when an angry crowd had formed outside a crime scene.

So while I object to seeing journalists handcuffed and arrested, I understand that in a volatile street protest, police are human and mistakes are made.

And as journalists covering these situations, I think it’s important that we adhere to some common sense guidelines.

First off, stay behind the police tape. Police have a right to create a zone in which they can control access to a crime scene. Respect that space.

What’s so aggravating about the first instance is that the cameraman was filming from the public side of the police tape when he was arrested.

Second, wear your credentials. Make it obvious to anyone who sees you that you are part of the working press.

What’s outrageous about the second Milwaukee arrest is that the photographer very clearly was wearing credentials as well as the kind of camera equipment typically used by a photo-journalist.

A police spokeswoman’s subsequent claim that officers did not realize the photographer was a journalist was incredulous at best.

Likewise, a videotape taken by the Nashville reporter clearly captured him telling officers that he was a journalist. They arrested him anyway.

And finally, don’t blur the distinctions between observer and the observed. I know sometimes we like to take the “fly on the wall” approach and not call attention to ourselves. But a street protest is not that kind of situation.

Would any of these steps have prevented any of these arrests? No, because in all these instances the journalists did what they were supposed to do and got arrested anyway.

But taking these steps helps us bolster our case when we protest the arrest of journalists who are simply doing their jobs.

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{democracy:5}

 

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