Candidates with the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval’

In SPJ elections (or any elections), do you want someone telling you how to vote?

That will be the topic when the SPJ national board holds an electronic meeting on Monday afternoon: whether to have preferred candidates in future elections.

At the Excellence in Journalism conference in the fall in Anaheim, delegates approved a plan to overhaul the SPJ national board, shrinking it from 23 to 9 people in a two-year period.

Another part of the plan is a new Nominating Committee, creating a more formal process for recruiting future candidates for the board.

The intention is good. Instead of having one person (usually the past president) doing the recruiting, a group of seven, representing various SPJ constituencies, will do the work.

What has not been decided yet is how the committee will operate.

This is important for one main reason. A task force suggested having the committee “vet” candidates and recommend them. This will entail making subjective decisions about which candidates are the best and giving them a “seal of approval.”

One idea has been to have that “seal” show up on the ballot. In the next election, you might see, for example, four candidates for president-elect and only one has an asterisk/check mark/thumbs up from the Nominating Committee, nudging you to vote for that person.

I strongly object to anything other than a neutral, politics-free ballot. Campaigning and endorsements are fine in an election, but they have no place appearing on the ballot. It’s no different than when you go to your local polling place and candidates’ signs can’t be any closer than 100 feet away from the door.

Proponents of the “seal of approval” have a good motivation. They think a Nominating Committee will highlight the best candidates, making it more likely we’ll have qualified board members.

But that underestimates the ability of voters to be thoughtful and discerning when making their choices. The “seal of approval” process essentially shifts the decision from all SPJ members to a group of seven. The election becomes a ratification process for the Nominating Committee’s preferences.

That’s going in the opposite direction for SPJ, which expanded voting rights in elections several years ago from a small group of delegates at the national convention to all SPJ members.

But how, some SPJ board members ask, can we be sure voters make smart choices? The answer is easy: Give them the information they need.

Currently, SPJ members are told who the candidates are, but little else. Candidates give some basic biographical information in Quill (if they choose to) and they make a short speech at the national convention (if they go). This is not nearly enough.

SPJ should treat elections like the governments we cover treat them. We need to get information from candidates through a questionnaire. (Some voters told me this questionnaire I sent to this year’s candidates helped them choose.) We need Twitter chats, podcasts, and maybe a (livestreamed) forum at the convention.

I am convinced that voters will make good choices if they have good information. Voters don’t need to have their hands held as they fill out the ballot.

* * *

This is a draft I proposed for the makeup and work of the SPJ Nominations Committee, followed by a Q&A addressing concerns that other board members have raised. Most of this was written by others; my draft addresses the concerns raised above.

SPJ’s Nominations Committee

Purpose and Composition: The committee will identify and recruit candidates for election to the Board of Directors.

The Nominations Committee shall have seven members:

  • The immediate past president of the Board of Directors
  • A current elected board member
  • A regional coordinator
  • An undergraduate student member
  • Three at-large members to be appointed from SPJ’s committees, communities, chapters or other SPJ constituencies.

Committee members will serve two-year terms, to be staggered, except for the student member and the immediate past president, who will serve one-year terms.

  • In Year 1, one other member of the committee besides the immediate past president and the student member will serve a one-year term.

The Nominations Committee chair will be appointed by the Board of Directors.

  • In accordance with the bylaws, the chair may not be an officer or board member.
  • The chair will:
    • Work with the Board of Directors to select appointees for the remaining Nominations Committee seats within 60 days of assuming his or her position. Self-nominations, member recommendations and board recommendations are allowed. Committee members should represent as many diverse viewpoints as possible to: 1) enhance the chances of identifying qualified candidates from all possible constituent groups and 2) enhance the chances of having a Board of Directors diverse in race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, medium, geography and professional experience.
    • Conduct virtual teleconference meetings or conference calls (open only to Nominations Committee members) to discuss potential board candidates.

To serve on the Nominations Committee, individuals must be SPJ members in good standing.

  • Members of the Nominations Committee cannot be candidates for an elected position and cannot lobby for the election of any candidate on the ballot. They must wait at least one year after leaving the Nominations Committee before running for or being considered for appointment to the Board of Directors.
  • Committee vacancies that occur after the committee has been selected will be filled by the Nominations Committee chair in consultation with SPJ’s president. Those members will serve the remainder of the term.

Nominations Committee Policies and Procedures

The Nominations Committee will:

  • Identify board candidates through a call for nominations in the winter and by actively recruiting through many diverse channels. Candidates may nominate themselves, be nominated by a fellow SPJ member or be nominated by a Nominations Committee member. Nominations Committee members should be active all year in promoting board membership and recruiting qualified candidates.
  • Verify that all board candidates are eligible to serve, according to SPJ’s bylaws, but will not recommend which candidates should be elected.

Candidates may add themselves to the ballot up to five days before an election begins.

The ballot will list only the name and background of all candidates.

The president, by April 1, shall appoint one or more people to work on efforts to educate SPJ members about candidates leading up to the next election, such as questionnaires about SPJ issues, podcasts, the use of social media, and other means.

________________________
Here are some questions and answers about this approach, using some concerns raised by other SPJ board members.

Q: Why not have the Nominations Committee designate the best candidates (with a label of “preferred,” “recommended” or a similar term)?

  A: All SPJ members will pick who the best candidates.

Q: How do we prevent an unworthy candidate from being elected?

  A: Voters will decide who they want, just like we would in any other election.

Q: But how can we be sure voters know which candidates deserve to be elected?

  A: We will do what we should have done already: pay more attention to making sure members have thorough information about candidates. Currently, we have a short bio in Quill and that’s about it. Candidates share more information about themselves if they want, but this tends to be generalities and platitudes. For all future elections, we will have some or all of the following: questionnaires on SPJ issues and experience; Twitter chats; podcasts; possibly a candidate forum at EIJ.

Q: A candidate is obviously unethical in his/her work. Why not tell voters about that?

  A: That type of information is fair game in any and all of the information forums we choose. We can and should ask candidates questions about their work, including asking them to defend it. Keep in mind that “unethical” is subjective; not everyone would agree what this means. 

Q: Of course we would agree on unethical ethics. We’re talking about a blatant lack of ethics, like working for Breitbart News.

  A: Does working for the National Enquirer indicate a blatant lack of ethics? A current board member used to work there. Should he be removed from the board?

Q: Fair point, but I’m talking about something much worse, something egregious.

  A: Why would SPJ members elect an egregiously bad candidate? They don’t need to be protected from themselves.

Q: Why have a Nominations Committee if it can’t name its preferred candidates on the ballot?

  A: The Nominations Committee serves another important function: rounding up and recruiting strong candidates. That’s a big improvement over the previous process, in which one person (the past president) did almost all of the work.

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