Archive for the ‘Excellence in Journalism’ Category


Don’t confuse sponsorship with like-mindedness

It’s understandable to treat conference “sponsorship” as a sign of endorsement, admiration, or some other positive connection. That’s how some critics have characterized the Fox sponsorship at this year’s Excellence in Journalism conference next week.

That’s not how I see it. (Note: I am a member of the board of directors of the Society of Professional Journalists, but speaking only for myself.)

Ours is a journalism conference. That doesn’t mean every journalist or news organization invited to participate or share the costs has been vetted for impurities. Program participants have expertise to share. Sponsors make a financial commitment to help with the cause — training journalists, celebrating excellence, honoring stalwarts.

This year, the Fox Corporation is a platinum sponsor, providing $50,000. The sponsorship includes two programs it will hold during EIJ. The plan was for a boot camp on multimedia reporting and a session on how women can establish themselves in the media world, but that has changed — the boot camp will be offered twice instead.

Fox will get exhibit space and its logo on conference tote bags.

I can’t imagine canceling those programs, denying everyone who signed up to learn, a few weeks in advance because of a segment Fox News aired. (The host said of people crossing the U.S. border: “… we have been invaded by a horde, a rampaging horde, of illegal aliens.” He also said: “But when you go back in time and when you look at what an invasion is, whether it’s the Nazis invading France and Western Europe — whether the Muslims were invading a country back in the early years. It was an invasion.”)

Is that giving Fox a free pass for odious remarks by one pundit? Hardly.

In announcing that Fox would remain an EIJ sponsor, SPJ issued a press release that, in the first sentence, blasted the pundit’s “invasion” remarks as “vile anti-immigrant commentary.”

To be clear: SPJ is accepting a sponsor’s money to help put on a worthwhile conference while calling out something the sponsor aired. That sounds like a wise approach to me.

A partnership in producing a conference does not make the partners simpatico in journalism or in business decisions that allow inflammatory rhetoric a place on the air, online or in print.

Fox and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists have had an ongoing connection in conference sponsorship.

NAHJ has been a partner with SPJ and the Radio Television Digital News Association at EIJ conventions in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019.

Fox has been an EIJ sponsor in 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

What suddenly made Fox toxic this year? Or, more specifically, in August, after being acceptable as a sponsor in July, June and the rest of the year?

In a statement, NAHJ President Hugo Balta said his organization took a stand after the Fox News Radio host (whose show can only be heard through a subscription) used prejudicial language to describe Latino immigrants.

The first few paragraphs of Balta’s statement addressed news coverage — such as the value of “simply reporting the facts, without bias ….”

Even though Balta didn’t give examples of bias in Fox’s news coverage, it’s hard to argue with the principle. The language and tone of immigration coverage is worth self-examination by all media, beyond what one pundit says.

In 2011, SPJ took on a question about proper terminology. At the urging of our Diversity Committee, delegates at the national convention approved a resolution urging journalists to stop using “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” to describe “undocumented people living in the United States.”

However, The Associated Press Stylebook, the source for many newsrooms, discourages the use of “undocumented,” too.

The serious among us strive, and sometimes struggle, to get it right.

What better place for examinations of this type than a conference in San Antonio, among three major journalism organizations.

Not everyone, even within SPJ, agrees with the approach to sponsorship that I described.

A similar argument came up last year about EIJ sponsorship by the Charles Koch Institute. SPJ chapters in Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago and elsewhere were unhappy about the arrangement and called for change.

I oppose litmus tests for sponsors who otherwise fit the guidelines we have in place.

The threshold might sound obvious — we know it when we see it, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about the limits of obscenity.

But imagine the vetting process — reviewing a sponsor’s ethical practices, diversity in the newsroom, marketing, corporate morality, and on and on. It can quickly turn into quicksand.

I will keep an open mind for ideas for improvement if we revisit the topic of sponsorship and welcome the recommendations of critics, including chapters who spoke out before. But snap judgments about a sponsor shortly before a convention aren’t a sound foundation for a policy.

New sponsorship policy approved

When the SPJ national board held an electronic meeting on Dec. 1, most of the meeting was in executive session for four topics:

  • the president’s report (including updates on personnel and vacancies for two appointed board seats)
  • Excellence in Journalism updates
  • a sponsorship task force report
  • an upcoming annual review of the executive director

A written part of the president’s report — on board structure, meetings, committees, priorities and more — was not in executive session and is part of the public meeting packet.

After discussing the sponsorship task force’s report in executive session, the board unanimously approved a new policy, after making two small changes from what the task force recommended.

The new SPJ policy:

  • Both media and non-media entities will be allowed to sponsor sessions/events, and to propose session ideas (but the proposals can be rejected). Proposals will be vetted by the EIJ Planning Committee. Once proposals are accepted, the Committee and its designated producer will assume full responsibility for participants, topics, times, places, etc.
  • Neither media nor non-media entities may offer speaking fees for sessions/events they sponsor. (Sponsor or grant money will not be used to pay speakers.)
  • Neither media nor non-media entities may cover expenses for speakers participating in sessions/events they sponsor. SPJ, RTDNA or the EIJ Planning Committee may choose in certain circumstances to use sponsor or grant monies to cover speaker expenses.
  • EIJ partners will retain the right of refusal over all sponsors, exhibitors or advertisers, with contracts reviewed by the executive directors of partner groups before accepting.
  • EIJ partners will disclose its policies on sponsorship of sessions/events to potential sponsors in the prospectus for EIJ19 in San Antonio and any other appropriate publications or web pages.

RTDNA, our EIJ convention partner for several years, is scheduled to review the same proposal later this week.

The sponsorship task force met for about two months. It was created after a few chapters protested in August that the Charles Koch Institute was to be a sponsor at EIJ 18 in September.

In 2003, SPJ passed a policy that did not allow sponsors to plan their own programs. However, because of turnover at SPJ headquarters and on the board, no one was aware of that policy as EIJ 18 was planned.

The 2003 policy also was approved before SPJ had a convention partner, so it needed to be reviewed and updated.

The board and SPJ’s headquarters gave out incorrect information about the Charles Koch Institute’s involvement in the EIJ 18 session it sponsored.

Also during the public portion of the Dec. 1 meeting, the board unanimously approved a process for evaluating SPJ’s executive director when the one-year mark arrives in March.

Bad communication, an apology: examining Koch sponsorship

Heading into this year’s national Excellence in Journalism convention, a few SPJ chapters criticized the national board and headquarters because the Charles Koch Institute was sponsoring a Freedom of Information Act session.

I didn’t mind the sponsorship, which appeared to mesh with an SPJ policy approved in 2003.

However, SPJ failed to give critics (and all SPJ members) accurate information — particularly about whether the Charles Koch Institute planned the session it sponsored. For that, I apologize. (Note: This piece reflects my views — not the SPJ board or anyone else.)

SPJ President J. Alex Tarquinio hinted at this in a column posted Oct. 24, writing that because of “a flurry of emails … some SPJ national board members became convinced that sponsors were not, in fact, involved in planning sessions.”

That characterization is technically true, but further explanation and context is in order.

In August, the Chicago Headline Club contacted SPJ Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie and then-President Rebecca Baker with concern about the Charles Koch Institute as an EIJ sponsor. This prompted thorough discussion by the SPJ and SDX boards and McKenzie of this and other sponsorships.

Tarquinio, as president-elect, agreed to form a task force to examine the issue and make recommendations by Dec. 1. That effort is underway. All SPJ members have been invited to take a survey on sponsorship questions. An online conversation will be held Nov. 26 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Eastern.

Irwin Gratz, a past SPJ president and incoming president of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation Board (now known as the Society of Professional Journalists Foundation Board), tracked down the approved 2003 policy and shared it with the boards during our discussion. Many of us weighed in on how the Koch sponsorship aligned with that policy.

Some key points:

  • “No money will be accepted from domestic or foreign governments, or from political organizations.”
  • “SPJ will control all aspects of the convention program. All convention programs will be on-the-record. People and organizations with positions directly opposed to those of any contributor may be invited to appear.”

This is the 2003 SPJ convention sponsorship policy

Since the policy was approved in 2003, SPJ has had plenty of turnover in its headquarters staff and on its board. As a result, it looks as if, when the Koch sponsorship was proposed and accepted, no one was aware of that policy.

(The task force has found that the SPJ board in 2008 approved an update to the policy. The two key points above did not change, but others did.)

A collective failure in communication compounded the problem. The SPJ and SDX boards reviewed the 2003 policy as if it governed the Koch agreement. Regional directors sent messages explaining and supporting the Koch agreement to all chapters, based on the same understanding.

Separately, though, our staff was proceeding differently with Koch and other sponsors, who were, indeed, allowed to plan sessions they sponsored.

It’s a legitimate question whether the 2003 policy applies now, since it was approved when SPJ held its own conventions, without partners (i.e., RTDNA) we have now. We can no longer say “SPJ will control all aspects of the convention program.”

Certainly, the policy needs to be re-examined and updated, which the task force is doing.

But the failure to provide accurate information was wrong, and we have ourselves to blame.

When I asked during the board’s Sept. 30 meeting if Koch planned the session it sponsored, Tarquinio said, “They did not plan it, but obviously we spoke with them and the process was a little [I’m not sure of the word she used here] this year because, as many of you know, Alison did have to step in for our program manager, who left in the middle of EIJ.”

(The sponsorship discussion during the Sept. 30 meeting is posted here, starting at about 45:40.)

McKenzie then told us that sponsors at that level picked from a choice of sessions. (McKenzie said that level was $25,000, but it actually was $20,000, according to the sponsorship task force.)

“They and any other sponsor at that level can plan their panel,” she said. “It’s their panel. It’s a sponsored panel.”

She said she chose the moderator, plus one panelist. Koch chose the other two panelists. “I reviewed their description and tweaked it, and sort of changed it a little bit,” McKenzie said. “So I was pretty heavy-handed in putting their panel together.”

She continued: “My understanding is, in the past, it hasn’t worked like that — that the sponsor pretty much picks, chooses the panel, chooses the description. I just was very involved in this particular panel.”

When I asked about the 2003 policy that said SPJ controls all aspects of the program, McKenzie said, “I was not aware of our policy at the time.”

Board member Lauren Bartlett mentioned “talking points” our headquarters staff gave the board on Sept. 24 about the Koch sponsorship, including this:

  • The institute doesn’t control anything about the session. It did not pick the topic or select the speakers, who are independent from the Koch foundation.

“No, that was inaccurate,” McKenzie told us.

Collectively, we failed and I understand the frustration of the Chicago Headline Club and others.

There is room for reasonable debate about appropriate sponsorship limits. But facts matter, too.

The Chicago Headline Club told its members that “the Charles Koch Institute, for example, is part of a secretive and complex family of groups whose goal is to advance the Koch brothers’ political ideologies.”

I note that as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Charles Koch Institute is legally prohibited from political advocacy (although I was called “naïve” to think this limitation is meaningful or obeyed).

Also, the Charles Koch Institute has a record of funding journalism efforts — such as with The Poynter Institute and the Newseum — that align with SPJ’s mission.

For example, from the Charles Koch Institute’s website:

Civil debate and the free exchange of speech and ideas — on our college campuses, in the arts, and in the press — allow us to challenge both ourselves and the status quo. In order to protect good ideas and speech, we must protect all ideas and speech, so long as they do not violate the person, property, or liberty of others.

Also:

The Media and Journalism Fellowship program is for aspiring and entrepreneurial journalists and story tellers. Our program offers media and creative professionals the opportunity to refine their skills while learning about the crucial role of free speech and a free press in our society.

The Poynter Institute was in a similar situation when it accepted money from the Charles S. Koch Foundation (the same organization, despite the variation in the name) to strengthen student publications.

Kelly McBride wrote about why Poynter was comfortable with the arrangement:

We pick the schools. We set the curriculum. We hire the faculty. We occasionally update our contacts at the Koch Foundation about our progress. I can personally attest that over the last year our contacts at the Koch Foundation gave us complete independence to run the program the way we saw fit. …

As an ethics specialist, I’m confident that we will uphold journalism values if we engage in a process of vetting projects, rather than sorting potential donors along a continuum of acceptable and unacceptable, then drawing a line.

If SPJ has the same firewall, I am comfortable with the same approach.

I don’t agree with all of the points raised by SPJ chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego. For example, Chicago insists that the SPJ Code of Ethics applies here. I disagree — the code is a set of guidelines for journalism, not deciding conference sponsorships.

Still, I apologize that we gave critics, and others, wrong information.

I couldn’t attend the FOIA session at EIJ because it conflicted with a national board meeting, but the Charles Koch Institute posted this about it:

At its 2018 Excellence in Journalism Conference last week, the Society of Professional Journalists held a panel discussion on use of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. Panelists included National Public Radio science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce and Jesse Franzblau, a policy analyst at Open the Government (OTG) — an organization that works to promote government openness through the use of access to information laws.

Starting with the premise that FOIA has allowed journalists to shine a light on government for more than 50 years, panelists explained how journalists can navigate FOIA for their benefit; how to find the right information and to isolate good stories; and how to ensure that they get the timely and complete answers from state officials.

The discussion coincided with OTG’s release its citizen’s guide to “America’s Forever Wars and the Secrecy that Sustains Them.” The project, which OTG policy analyst Emily Manna describes as helping the public understand FOIA’s role in “bringing transparency to issues vital to the public’s understanding of military and national security programs,” is supported by Open Society Foundations and the Charles Koch Institute.

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