Posts Tagged ‘Quill’


Toughing it out: Great journalism in hard times

Note: A version of this post is in the May/June issue of Quill magazine as John Ensslin’s “From the President” column.

We live in difficult times. Not a month goes by without fresh news of colleagues who have either lost their jobs or are left to deal with the harsh reality of a smaller newsroom operating on diminished resources.

It’s distressing to read about copy editors being laid off. As someone who has been saved from many an embarrassing gaffe, I’ve come to appreciate the value of a robust copy desk.

Shedding copy editors is like burning the furniture to stay warm. It’s a desperate option, and in the end, the news outlet gets burnt.

But hard times require hard people, and journalists — especially SPJ members — are a tough, creative and resourceful bunch.

For vivid proof, look no further than the May/June Quill, where we honor the work of this year’s Sigma Delta Chi Award winners from newsrooms large and small.

There are some amazing stories here. Take, for example, Corrine Reilly’s riveting description of an operating room in a NATO hospital in Afghanistan for The Virginian-Pilot.

Or the tough, ground-breaking stories that Sara Ganim and her colleagues at the Patriot-News did on the sex assault allegations against former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky — which also won a Pulitzer this year.

Or Matt Lakin’s exposé of an epidemic of pain-killer addiction in East Tennessee for the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

All of this work was done against the backdrop of news organizations that are stretched to meet their bottom line. But the work still gets done because reporters, editors, photographers and news directors believed in these stories. They did what had to be done.

We salute them, and I look forward to meeting these fellow journalists when we hold our annual SDX Awards banquet at the National Press Club on Friday, July 20.

If you are near the D.C. area, consider joining us. I know from attending last year’s banquet that it is an inspirational evening and well worth your time and the price of admission. See here for ticket information.

If you can’t be there, stay tuned for a series of “Studio SPJ” programs that will feature interviews with some of the winners on how they got their story. More on these and past programs is here.

Exceptional work like this gives me optimism for the future of journalism. I also found grounds for optimism recently while on a sentimental journey into journalism’s past.

In May, I visited Silverton, an old frontier mining town in southwest Colorado and home to the Silverton Standard & The Miner.

The purpose of my trip was to help dedicate a plaque commemorating the site of the newspaper’s office as one of SPJ’s Historic Sites in Journalism.

The Standard & The Miner became the 94th entry on our list and the second in Colorado, joining the Denver Press Club, which was added in 2008.

This weekly newspaper has been a fixture in Silverton since 1875, when it began telling the stories of this town through good times and bad.

You want to talk about tough times? How about this: The original publisher had to haul the printing press and then rolls of newsprint over a 10,910-foot mountain pass.

The paper has endured through boom and bust cycles as well as an outbreak of Spanish influenza that wiped out 10 percent of the town’s population.

What’s particularly remarkable about the paper’s recent history is what happened in 2009 when the previous owner was set to close the paper. The San Juan Historical Society stepped forward, bought the paper and continues to run it on a non-profit basis.

Silverton Mayor Chris Tookey summed up the town’s feelings at a May 5 dedication ceremony:

“We’re so excited that everybody got together and kept our newspaper alive,” she told the crowd that had gathered for the event.

I told the crowd that the plaque was not just to commemorate a site where journalism has been practiced. Rather, the honor was for the unbreakable bond that exists between this paper and its community.

The challenges we face today in serving our communities are no less daunting than they were for the owners of the Silverton paper when they had to haul newsprint over a steep mountain pass in the dead of a Colorado winter.

But as they showed then, and as our SDX Award winners show now, it can be done, and it will be done.

We are a tough, resourceful bunch. We will find our way.

Ethics questions are a way of life

Note: A version of this column also appears in the March/April issue of Quill magazine.

A journalist friend who also is commissioner in a fantasy baseball league to which I belong recently sent an email to all the team owners who also are journalists.

Does playing in a league that features modest fees and prize money constitute a form of sports betting? he inquired. And if so, does that constitute an ethical violation?

After all, he noted, there have been cases where sports columnists have been disciplined and even fired following disclosures that they had placed some rather large bets with gambling bookies.

Ultimately, we decided to go ahead with our league this spring because none of us are sports reporters, the money is nominal and winning requires a lot more strategy and skill than a simple bet.

But I bring up this matter not just because it raised an interesting question but I loved the mere fact that we were having that conversation.

It also illustrates a belief that I’ve long held when it came to journalism ethics.

I’ve never thought of ethics as a high-brow concept or something that we ponder during the occasional panel or classroom discussion. It’s not a code of conduct written in stone or parsed in a textbook.

To me, it’s more like a daily meditation and a way of looking at the world. It’s part of the fabric of everyday life as a reporter, not just on big stories where there are tough decisions and close judgement calls.

I think of it more as a practice that requires some thoughtful behavior on matters as large as a front page story or as small a cup of coffee that we insist on paying for or whether we can place can place a small bet on a sporting event.

Ethical decision making is also something that grows more difficult the harder we work at our craft.

When I’ve talked to student journalists on this topic, I explain that one way they can avoid an ethical dilemma is to not work very hard and not dig very deep.

But then I quickly add that they’ll be lousy journalists if they don’t dig deeper into news stories and willingly put themselves into situations where ethical questions grow more frequent and complex.

That’s also one reason why I like the SPJ Code of Ethics, particularly in the way we apply it not as an immutable set of rules but rather a tool to help working journalists work though those problems.

The latest  issue of Quill is the one we devote each year to stories on journalism ethics. It comes out at a time of year when many of our chapters will be holding ethics events ranging from panel discussions to the popular ethics poker games.

But our preoccupation with this topic is year round and day-by-day.

Small wonder then that journalism ethics is the one area where SPJ is viewed as the industry leader and where our code is seen as the gold standard.

We do a lot of great and important work each year in other areas such as freedom of information, diversity, professional training and defending the public’s right to know.

But our ethics code — as one longtime SPJ member once told me — is our franchise. It’s the area where people both inside and outside our profession turn to us first.

Just within this past year we’ve had a would-be presidential candidate and a school board in New Jersey try to use our code to their own purpose.

In both instances, we’ve had to remind people that one of the strengths of our code and the reason for its durability  is because it is a voluntary set of guidelines that call for balancing competing interests in order to do what is right.

But the fact that they held up our code as something of value is a testament to its strength and utility.

I also love the fact that we’re never done with this work. Last year, SPJ and SDX published the fourth edition of our book “Journalism Ethics – a Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media.”

And this year, our Ethics Committee has undertaken an ambitious project of issuing a series of white papers that elaborate on such topics as political activity and checkbook journalism.

I’d urge you go out and buy the book and read those white papers on our website and thumb through the stories in Quill.

I think you’ll find as I do that not a working day goes by when these guideposts are not useful tools in negotiating and resolving ethical questions, be they large or small.

The state of SPJ – remarks to the Greater Charlotte chapter

While the SPJ Executive Committee visited with members of our Greater Charlotte chapter in North Carolina on Jan. 27, I gave a talk on the State of the Society.

Below is a copy of my remarks (although not an exact transcript.) Or watch the video, uploaded by the Charlotte chapter:

I’d like to take a moment here to share a few thoughts on the state of SPJ — on where we are and where we’re going.

First off, tonight we’ve reached another milestone in SPJ’s long and storied history. We’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of Quill, our signature magazine.

What started as a fraternity newsletter in January 1912 has evolved into an outstanding magazine that helps our members stay current with what going on in journalism and within the Society.

And think about it. How many magazines in America have survived a century or more? Well, there’s Scientific American at 167 years old and Harper’s at 162. But there aren’t a lot more, and as I like to tell our editor, Scott, we’re older than Time.

The pages of Quill tell the history of journalism in America, and later this year, we’re going tap into some of the magazine’s images to tell our history as well. SPJ member Jennifer Peebles is building an interactive timeline of significant events in SPJ history. So, watch for that.

Looking ahead in that history, I’m hoping we can increase our online version of Quill so it’s something members can turn to every day instead of six times a year.

SPJ has a long history of advocating for journalists and the public’s right to know, and this year that has certainly been true. We protested the arrests of several journalists who were wrongfully detained or arrested while covering various “Occupy” demonstrations across the county.

We’ve committed $1,000 from our Legal Defense Fund for a freelance photojournalist who was arrested while covering an Occupy Wall Street demonstration.

We’ll continue to fight these good fights and to stand with journalists who are in that often lonely place of taking fire for simply doing their jobs.

Another thing SPJ is known for is its ethics code, which some folks have called the gold standard for our industry.

Last year, we reached an important goal with the publication of the 4th edition of a textbook of ethics case studies. This year, we’re taking that a step further by writing a series of white papers on various ethics topics.

I’d urge you to take a look at these essays. They are posted on our website, spj.org. They show that for us, journalism ethics is not just a textbook on a shelf, but an on-going set of values that are useful when doing our jobs every day.

SPJ is also about to do something we’ve never done before: be a landlord.

Thanks to some hard work by our Executive Director, Joe Skeel, we are on the verge of signing a lease with a global recruitment firm that wants to rent the underutilized second floor of our headquarters in Indianapolis.

This will require us to invest some funds into renovating that part of the building, but in the long run, it will create a new stream of revenue.

Now you would be right to ask: What does this have to do with journalism? Nothing really. But at time when other journalism organizations are struggling just to stay afloat, we’re doing something that will help stabilize SPJ’s finances and ensure our future.

And finally, I have some good news about SPJ’s membership.

For the first time since 2008, we are starting the year with more members than we had the year before. Not a lot — just about 200 to 300 more — but it has been that way consistently for more than two months.

Part of that increase may be due to an increase in the number of entries were seeing for our annual Mark of Excellence college journalism awards.  But I think some of the credit also goes to our membership committee, which has been reaching out to lapsed members and talking them into sticking with SPJ.

I hope you’ll help us continue to build on this small trend. I’m asking that every chapter, student and pro, do one membership-building event in the month of March.

We’re calling it our own March Membership Month. You’ll be hearing more about it in the next few weeks, and when you do, please do what you can to ensure that our Society continues to grow in the year ahead.

SPJ committees at work: The year ahead

This post is an expanded version of my forthcoming first column for Quill (for the Nov/Dec issue). Think of this as a roadmap for the year ahead and a lineup of who is doing what.

It’s a bit long, but it will give you a good idea of the scope and breadth of the work SPJ has taken on this year.

The unsung heroes of our Society are the volunteers who log countless hours working on various national committees.

As your new president, I’ve been blessed to inherit a very strong set of committees. I’ve added some people and created some new committees, but for the most part there’s a fair number of folks who agreed to continue on this year.

In my view, committees are working laboratories where SPJ policies are drafted and vetted. I’ve tasked these folks with testing out several new initiatives. Here are brief descriptions of some of the assignments they are working on.

– The Programming Committee, chaired by Jeremy Steele, is a new panel aimed at helping professional and student chapters increase the level of SPJ activities. One project they are working on is to create a “speakers’ bureau” of various experts within SPJ who would be willing to travel at minimal cost to talk to chapters across the country.

As part of the programming committee, Holly Fisher will continue to produce chapter-hosted programs for Studio SPJ.

– The expanded Membership Committee, chaired by Holly Edgell, will be forming a team of volunteers to reach out to lapsed members to encourage them to re-up. The group is also working on coordinating a month-long national membership drive in March 2012. They are also studying the feasibility of creating an institutional membership for news organizations.

-This year Membership also has a new subcommittee chaired by Tara Puckey. This group will focus their efforts on building collegiate membership.

– The Ethics Committee, chaired by Kevin Smith, plans to begin the long and deliberate process of reviewing our Code of Ethics for possible revisions in the light of the challenges posed by a digital age. The committee also hopes to author some position papers on topics such as political coverage, checkbook journalism, plagiarism, etc.

-The Diversity Committee, chaired by Curtis Lawrence, is at work on reviving the Rainbow Source Book, working to strengthen ties with other journalism organizations and partnering with chapters and other journalism groups to monitor content and hiring in media.

– The Freedom of Information Committee, chaired by Linda Petersen, will be working on an encore production of the highly popular “Access Across America Tour” that Secretary-Treasurer Dave Cuillier created two years ago. This year, we’re hoping to have more than one trainer making regional tours to newsrooms and chapters across the nation.

The FOI Committee also is doing an update on prison media access, and for Sunshine Week they will be surveying Washington, D.C.-area reporters on their relationship with federal government PIOs to gain insight into source relationships and the role that public relations professionals play in the free flow of information between government and the media.

– The Government Relations Committee, chaired by Al Cross, will work with SPJ leaders and the FOI Committee to advocate for open government at all levels from localities to Washington, D.C. One special emphasis will be fighting efforts to repeal or curtail public notice advertising by state and local government.

Government Relations also will be working closely with the FOI Committee. Al and Linda will each serve as members of the other committee.

– The Communications Committee, chaired by Lauren Bartlett, is working on a strategic communications plan aimed at creating unified messaging and ideas for key initiatives on our core missions. The committee also is working on a plan to position SPJ national leaders as experts on various media topics.

-Lauren also is chairing a subcommittee whose purpose will be to produce a white paper on where our industry is headed and that will list some innovative best practices by media organizations.

– The International Journalism Committee, chaired by Ricardo Sandoval Palos,  is evaluating what our policy should be when individuals or groups of journalists apply to join SPJ or to start their own chapter, as a group of journalism students in Qatar did two years ago.

– The Awards Committee, chaired by Ginny Frizzi, is weighing whether it would make sense to honor some of our recently deceased SPJ leaders by naming some of our awards after them.

– The Freelance Committee’s special project this year will be to develop a freelancers’ resource guide. Dana Neuts chairs this group.

-The Legal Defense Fund, chaired by Hagit Limor, will continue assisting journalists by funding court battles for their First Amendment rights while working with staff to explore new options for fundraising.

– The Professional Development Committee, chaired by Deb Wenger, will continue producing online tutorials for our members and will try this year to offer some webinars.

-The Journalism Education Committee, chaired by Rebecca Talent,  is looking at ways to support high school journalism programs that are facing elimination because of budget cuts. The committee also is sharing syllabi and best practices with new faculty and encouraging more minority applicants for the Mark of Excellence awards.

– The Digital Media Committee, chaired by Jennifer Peebles, will be working on a special project aimed at creating an interactive digital timeline that will allow visitors to our website to explore SPJ’s rich, 103-year history.

-The GenJ Committee, chaired by Lynn Walsh, is continuing to blog on its excellent site on the SPJ blogs network. They are also trying to come up with a more contemporary and less retro name for the “Liner Notes” blog.

-I have also appointed a special committee, chaired by past president Irwin Gratz, to study whether it’s feasible and desirable to create virtual chapters or affinity groups that would consist of members who share a common professional interest, such as freelancing or a specialty beat like religion or court reporting.

– And last but not least, I’ve asked Mike Koretzky to lead a “Blue Sky” Committee. I’ve asked this group if we had $10,000 or $50,000 or $100,000, how could we best spend it? There’s no money in the budget for this, but let’s first see what this panel recommends.

Will all of these initiatives be adopted? Not necessarily. Where there are policy questions involved, the SPJ board of directors will ultimately decide.

But thanks to the efforts of all these volunteers, I feel like our SPJ year is off to a good start.

On “illegal alien/immigrant”

I have to admit to being skeptical last year when controversy broke out over Leo Laurence’s column in SPJ’s Quill magazine on use of the phrase “illegal immigrant.”

I’ve certainly used it many times over the last decade in keeping with guidelines spelled out in the Associated Press Stylebook.

Here’s what the AP Stylebook (2006 edition) has to say about the term: “Illegal Immigrant – Used to describe those who have entered the country illegally. It is the preferred term rather than illegal alien or undocumented worker.”

Sometimes I’ve also used the term “undocumented immigrant.” While looking back at stories written by my colleagues, I found plenty of instances where both terms were used in immigration-related stories.

Less common was use of the term “illegal alien.” Webster’s Dictionary still includes the secondary definition of alien as “a foreign-born resident who has not been naturalized and is still a subject or citizen of a foreign country.”

But that usage seems antique now. Science fiction movies and television programs like “The X-Files” have rendered the more common use of the word to refer to an extra-terrestrial — the third meaning listed in Webster’s.

So when the issue came up last week at the SPJ convention in the form of a resolution, I still wasn’t entirely convinced of the need to question use of the term “illegal immigrant.”

Others who shared my skepticism questioned the resolution’s wording.

Then Rebecca Aguilar got up to speak.

Rebecca is a member of SPJ’s Fort Worth Pro chapter. She attended the convention this year as one of six diversity fellows, a program that has been a valuable asset to the Society by ensuring that underrepresented voices are heard in debates like this one.

After receiving permission to speak as a non-delegate, Rebecca told voting delegates how she is the daughter of undocumented immigrants.

She talked about how her mother reads the Toledo Blade* every day and later became a U.S. citizen. Her mother believes in the work that journalists like her daughter do and its importance to society, Rebecca said.

But it pains her mom whenever she sees the term “illegal alien” in the newspaper.

“Every time you use the words ‘illegal alien,’ you insult my mother,” Rebecca told the delegates. “‘Alien’ is an ugly word.”

You could feel the whole debate start to shift as she sat down. I know I was moved. A short time later, the delegates approved the resolution by a resounding voice vote.

My gripe with the term “illegal immigrant” is not the phrase itself, but with the loose and imprecise way that it is applied.

I’ve had the experience of covering large scale immigration arrests at a meat packing plant or vehicle accidents where large numbers of people are arrested.

It’s not uncommon, however, for authorities to release several people the next day after determining that indeed they had papers. To call these people “illegal” is sloppy and inaccurate.

My concern is not one of being politically correct as it being precise and accurate.

When police arrest someone on a burglary charge, we don’t refer to them the next day as “illegal burglars.” They are burglary suspects.

I don’t see why we can’t treat immigration cases like any other arrests. A person under arrest is suspected of entering the country illegally until authorities are in fact sure that they did.

It’s worth noting that while the resolution (full wording below) urges journalists to stop using the term “illegal alien,” it stopped short of asking them not to use the term “illegal immigrant.”

Instead, it simply encourages “continuous discussion and re-evaluation of the use of ‘illegal immigrant’ in news stories.”

That seems like a healthy idea to me.

I’m curious about what you think. Please take a moment to respond to the poll at the end of this column.

Here is the resolution approved at the convention:

WHEREAS, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics urges all journalists to be “honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information” and;

WHEREAS, mainstream news reports are increasingly using the politically charged phrase “illegal immigrant” and the more offensive and bureaucratic “illegal alien” to describe undocumented immigrants, particularly Latinos and;

WHEREAS, a fundamental principle embedded in our U.S. Constitution is that everyone (including non-citizens) is considered innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law and;

WHEREAS, this constitutional doctrine, often described as “innocent-until-proven-guilty,” applies not just to U.S. Citizens but to everyone in the United States and;

WHEREAS, only the court system, not reporters and editors, can decide when a person has committed an illegal act and;

WHEREAS, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists is also concerned with the increasing use of pejorative and potentially inaccurate terms to describe the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States;

THEREFORE, be it resolved that the Society of Professional Journalists convention of delegates: urges journalists and style guide editors to stop the use of illegal alien and encourage continuous discussion and re-evaluation of the use of illegal immigrant in news stories.

* In fairness to the Blade, the term “illegal immigrant” is used far more often that “illegal alien” judging by a search of the paper’s website, although examples of both can be found.

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