Defending Press Freedom

Oct 17, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Sherri Killam-Williams

Special to TelevisionWeek

New York Times reporter Judith Miller, recently released after a 12-week stint in jail for refusing to reveal a source, will address the 2005 Society of Professional Journalists Convention & National Journalism Conference, which was scheduled to open Sunday and continues through Tuesday in Las Vegas.

Ms. Miller will take part in the panel discussion “The Reporter’s Privilege Under Siege” from 8:15-9:45 a.m. Tuesday. The conference is being held at the Aladdin Resort and Casino.

Ms. Miller was jailed after she refused to reveal her source for a story concerning the leak of the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. She was released from jail after the source, I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, waived a pledge of confidentiality.

The need for a federal law that protects journalists from being required to reveal their sources to federal prosecutors is sure to be one of the hot-button topics during the conference.

“It’s a very safe bet there will be a lot of talk with this convention about confidential sources. A federal shield law is something we are really, really pushing for,” said SPJ President Irwin Gratz. “What Miller’s case shows is that we are naked to federal authorities when it comes to subpoenas.”

Other workshops will cover a variety of topics of interest to television, radio, newspaper and freelance journalists.

Closing In on 100

SPJ, which celebrates its centennial in four years, focuses much of its energy on freedom of information and access to information. It maintains a national network of state “sunshine chairs” who advise the national SPJ board on the status of open meetings and open records law.

“SPJ alerts us to situations where we might attempt to intervene or lobby for better legislation,” Mr. Gratz said. “I’ve been in SPJ for over 20 years as a radio broadcaster, and the organization speaks to important journalistic issues and it enables me to network with people.”

The national SPJ organization includes about 10,000 members, Mr. Gratz said, of which about 20 percent are broadcast members. Once thought of as purely a newspaper fraternity, the organization attracts print, television, radio and freelance journalists because of its commitment to a free press.

Media convergence makes SPJ an organization that’s needed more than ever in today’s fast-paced news world, said Jim Parker, news and operations manager for Belo Interactive/KGW-TV in Portland, Ore., and an SPJ director at large.

“As the technology continues to drive things, we’re all having to re-examine what we do and how we do it,” Mr. Parker said. “Those challenges for journalists that we are going to face in the future, a lot of the issues will cut across the spectrum. And that’s where the SPJ is going to be able to be a key player, because we represent everyone. We’re the largest, oldest and most broad-based journalism group … Folks will be looking at us for guidance in how we deal with all of these technological dilemmas.”

Print journalists and television journalists face many of the same issues, he said.

“We’re lobbying very aggressively for a federal shield law. Tthat impacts reporters regardless of what form of media you work in because certainly a television reporter can be jailed as easily as a print reporter,” Mr. Parker said.

He pointed to the case of Rhode Island TV news reporter Jim Taricani, who was sentenced to six months of home confinement in December 2004 for his failure to reveal the source of a surveillance videotape.

Freedom of the Press

Day in and day out, SPJ works to protect and promote freedom of information and state and federal laws that affect all reporters, Mr. Parker said.

“Judith Miller was very lucky in that she had The New York Times helping her,” he said. “There are some newsrooms in America where reporters would wonder if they would get the level of support she did or if the company would say, ‘Just let [the authorities] get what they want.’ Who will be there for you if you get cast off to jail? SPJ will be there for you whether you’re Judith Miller or Joe Crabapple.”

The SPJ Legal Defense Fund can be used to enforce public access to government records and proceedings, as a support for freedom of information hotlines, coalitions and newsletters and for legislative lobbying activities.

“We help out and get involved regardless of which discipline we’re practicing in,” Mr. Parker said.

A commitment to the overall craft of journalism is what makes SPJ important for print outlets and radio and television broadcasters, said Randy Miller, associate professor of mass communications at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg and treasurer of the Mid-Florida Pro SPJ chapter in Tampa.

“I think SPJ’s code of ethics-how to behave and act as a journalist-and to provide one of the few areas where journalists actually have a place to discuss and consider what the ramifications of what they do is invaluable. SPJ provides a grounding for people who really don’t have that code of behaviors,” Mr. Miller said.

The perception that print journalists dominate SPJ is not entirely accurate, Mr. Parker said. He noted that broadcasters are active in the Chicago and New York SPJ chapters. And broadcast members are very involved in the Mid-Florida Pro Chapter, Mr. Miller added.

Broadcasters Need Apply

Broadcasters lead many local chapters and hold positions of leadership on the national board. Aside from Mr. Gratz, a radio broadcaster, and Mr. Parker, a television broadcaster, the national SPJ board includes Gary Hill, director of investigations at KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, who is the SPJ national ethics committee chairman.

While some of the workshops at the annual convention, such as “Story Organization: What Comes After the Lead,” may hold interest mainly for print journalists, other workshops are purely television-oriented, such as “Six Words Guaranteed to Get You a Job in TV News,” “Job Survival in the 21st Century: Doing it ALL” and “Resume Tape Tips: How to Build a Job-Winning News Videotape.” Other workshops are aimed at journalists of any ilk, including “Uncovering the Bias in Your Story,” “Improving Cross-Cultural Reporting in Your Community” and “Sports Reporting: The Playing Field and Beyond.” Other workshops are “Radio-The Next Frontier” and “The Business of Freelancing.”

The national SPJ board is working on initiatives to help improve the public’s opinion of the media, including working with member chapters to create a town hall meeting to allow area residents and journalists to interact. Mr. Gratz said the group also is creating a speakers bureau and plans a major push to inform the public about SPJ’s code of ethics.

“There is such a thing as a good ethical journalist,” Mr. Gratz said. “The public is painting all of the news media with a big broad brush because of some of the scandals in the last few years. The scandals are not widespread. This year I’ve visited a lot of newsrooms-radio and TV-and none have been involved in ethics scandals. I don’t think the public gives the news media credit for wanting to be responsible. And largely, day in and day out, we are.”

Working for Public Trust

The biggest challenge to journalists at the moment is the poor perception of the news media by the public, said Mr. Gratz, who is the “Morning Edition” producer for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

“I think the public attitude has evolved in the last decade, making it easier for politicians to treat journalists with much more contempt and disregard. I think what most of our members would say, what troubles us is that this is a really bad thing for society,” Mr. Gratz said. “If we can’t get the information we’re looking for because politicians don’t trust us and the public doesn’t believe us, inevitably the public is less informed about what’s going on, and tha
t can’t be a good thing.”

To that end, SPJ, in conjunction with both broadcast and print media, sends auditors to different areas of the country to make requests for what are clearly open records. Mr. Parker said this is done to expose those entities that aren’t complying with open records laws.

SPJ has 70 professional chapters and 220 campus chapters. Its president, Mr. Gratz, believes that many journalists join because it offers them a chance to improve and to make journalism better.

“The organization is almost 100 years old and was founded by 10 college students who thought in 1909 that journalism could be better than it is, and I think it’s true. Journalism can be better,” Mr. Gratz said.

Mr. Parker echoed his comments.

“As we [SPJ] continue to grow we’ll only get stronger, and our ability to defend the principles we all believe in gets better,” he said.

Other media organizations appeal to news executives, while SPJ offers educational and resource opportunities to the rank-and-file journalist, Mr. Parker said.

“All the core issues that SPJ works with are issues that cut across the board,” he said. Obviously, a lot of the continuing education, be it a regional conference or workshop that we’re doing in partnership with Bloomberg, [concerns] issues we all face in this day and age, particularly with the convergence that we have with the Web. It’s kind of united print and TV, because virtually everyone has a component of convergence. It makes a lot of the issues, particularly in terms of ethics and balance and all of those things we strive as journalists to do, and puts that in the forefront.

“Oftentimes, we are called upon to make ethical choices in a very short time frame. I think those ethical dilemmas cut across all boundaries,” Mr. Parker said.

The SPJ can be reached by telephone at 317-927-8000 or by fax at 317-920-4789.