SPJ Aims High Despite Gray Skies

By: Jim Moscou

Nowadays, it seems there’s not a media cubicle without a storm cloud stalled overhead, from corporate headquarters on down. The weather above the desks in the newsroom isn’t any better, or so it seemed Sept. 12-14 at the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) national convention headlined “Staking New Frontiers.”

The aim was to reinvigorate SPJ’s mission — to improve and protect journalism by supporting open records and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. While the conference had a few moments, the gathering often felt more like a lull in a battle. From panels to the party at Billy Bob’s — the “World’s Largest Honky-Tonk” and, for some, the weekend highlight — the conference was littered with journalism war stories: First Amendment squeezes by the Bush administration, anecdotes of industry brain drain, concerns about unchecked reporter trauma, and a general lack of commitment to professional development industrywide.

The conference drew more than 600 members (SPJ has about 9,500 members), with many of the panels mulling the year’s most somber moments. Few sparks flew, but common themes, such as poor reporter training, did emerge.

Ed Offley, a former Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter and a military writer for two decades, argued journalists are woefully unprepared to deal with the military and conflicts. The theme was the same in “Following the Money: How Everyone Missed the Warning Signs about Enron.” Laura Goldberg, a Houston Chronicle business reporter, admitted that when handed the energy beat just weeks before the story of corporate fraud broke in her hometown, she was simply lost in a barrage of acronyms and bizarre terminology.

In a panel enticingly called “Buckraking,” James Warren, deputy managing editor for features at the Chicago Tribune, described the Trib‘s latest newsroom-ethics crackdown. Beginning Sept. 10, his reporters could not accept free tickets to a theatrical performance or other event unless it was related to the reporter’s beat; no guests would be allowed to tag along; and any merchandise, such as books or CDs, unrelated to one’s coverage or beat had to be returned. “These things became this bizarre entitlement,” he said, noting the rules were met with loud grumblings at the newspaper.

To be sure, there were inspirational moments. SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund awarded its First Amendment Award to Vanessa Leggett, the freelance writer who spent 168 days in jail after refusing to reveal a source. Paul E. Steiger, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, effectively defended his decision to turn over to the government an al-Qaida laptop computer purchased by his reporters. And Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, urged news executives to do a better job living up to journalism’s public service.

All comments on the mark or worth pondering — if only more industry captains were there to hear such pleas. Nearly half the attendees were students. Many others were from academia.

Organizers blame the general membership decline on the emergence of more than 40 specialty media organizations nationwide in the past few decades. “We need to do a better job letting all journalists know we stand up for all journalists,” said outgoing SPJ President Al Cross. “We all need to find a way, for instance, to look media owners in the eye on a consistent basis and say, ‘Remember your public function,’ because the principles of journalism are truly being challenged.” But with journalism bruised and battered and stormy clouds still on the horizon, reporters likely left with more questions than answers.

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