By Perry Beeman
Special to TelevisionWeek
We journalists learned early that all we have is our integrity, a reputation for fair and accurate reporting. For the Society of Environmental Journalists, the lesson is the same. The SEJ board knows that our nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization will always face skepticism. The skeptics-some of them our bosses, unfortunately-will always wonder if we care more about Birkenstocks than brownfields, about tree-hugging more than technology. At least until they take the time to learn what we do.
SEJ’s integrity is so important that the board has consistently listed it as one of the top guiding principles in our organization’s strategic plan. That’s why the board is working now to add new statements to conference materials to make it clear who we are, which is one thing, and who attends the annual conference, which is a broader question.
SEJ, established legally as a nonprofit educational organization, is a journalism organization devoted to improving coverage of environmental news.
We don’t lobby. We have no political agenda.
Under our legal status, most of what we do is in the public arena. Much of our Web site is accessible to anyone, and we are legally required to open our conference to the public. People from all walks come to the annual conferences for various reasons. We invite many speakers, moderators and exhibitors. The event draws journalists, vendors, interest-group members, corporate public relations workers, spouses, scientists, government employees and an array of other folk. Many of them are not SEJ members.
Sometimes, our “big-tent” approach attracts visitors interested in challenging our status as an objective organization with only one agenda-improving the quality, accuracy and visibility of environmental journalism.
Occasionally, questions arise about standing ovations given to speakers, some of whom represent a particular political viewpoint.
Once in a while, someone writes a story for another publication purporting to expose some great bias among SEJ’s ranks.
Remember what SEJ is and is not about. We are a group of journalists and journalism educators. Newspaper reporters are the biggest subset of our 1,400 members, followed by freelancers.
We also have TV folks, online journalists, podcasters and professors.
Sessions Open to All
Our members also include folks who write for publications that some may associate with environmentalists or environmental groups. These members are journalists, not public relations workers or lobbyists. Our strict membership guidelines exclude anyone who is paid to do public relations or to lobby.
We don’t give people an ethics code, require a performance test to join or somehow sanction members based on some set of rules. We are an educational organization that supports freedom of speech and freedom of information.
Conference attendees are not all journalists guided by their employers’ ethics code, or even personal ones. Some are not journalists or SEJ members. All are free to react as they like to speakers, within the law and with civility. We want decorum, but we don’t want to censor anyone. We’ve seen standing ovations, catcalls, heavy applause for specific comments and grunts of disbelief.
The board would like folks to know that those are personal expressions, protected by the First Amendment. The reactions aren’t some kind of official SEJ position statement.
Of the 719 people attending the 2004 Pittsburgh conference, more than 390 were nonmembers. Over the years, we’ve had actors portraying Teddy Roosevelt, Rachel Carson and a zebra mussel.
We even had a wolf under the care of a handler; SEJ representatives did not control the animal’s actions. SEJ’s board also had no control over the person, allegedly a board member, who appeared in Pittsburgh as Batman. We had 32 fellowship winners at Pittsburgh, 58 guests and a whole bunch of speakers and moderators.
It was a grand, diverse gathering.
There is plenty of room for confusion in the sessions. SEJ strives for balance on the panels, but cancellations happen.
Sometimes speakers cancel at the last minute, leaving a panel weighted more toward one viewpoint or another. That can lead to misguided charges of bias.
Some have questioned the boisterous expressions of approval or disapproval that punctuate some sessions. We aren’t going to demand that every speaker get a standing ovation, or tell people they can’t stand, or applaud, or cheer or remain silent.
This isn’t to say SEJ members don’t give standing ovations. Some choose to politely applaud while seated. Some don’t applaud at all. Some give standing ovations, perhaps out of courtesy to a strong speaker, regardless of political orientation. We don’t tell members or anyone else how to react.
Board members are working to make sure moderators at major SEJ panels or keynote addresses get at this diverse-audience point, perhaps in a humorous way. We may tell speakers that they shouldn’t be offended if they get a standing ovation-or don’t-because we have a mix of journalists and non-journalists in the audience. Some journalists are the sit-quietly-and-watch type.
We tell people about SEJ and its mission via the listservs, the conference, the SEJ Journal, our regional events, brochures, advertisements and our contest.
The message is this: We are a journalism organization dedicated to improving environmental coverage. We support free speech.
In the daily grind of journalism, and when so many people gather for a conference, controversies happen. That’s OK. We work in the marketplace of ideas, after all. We want discussion, debate, thought and insight.
We also want to make sure that everyone understands what SEJ is, and what it is not.
The board is dedicated to making sure SEJ keeps its integrity and its reputation as one of the great journalism organizations on the globe.
Perry Beeman, SEJ board president, writes for The Des Moines (Iowa) Register. This report first appeared in the SEJ Journal.