SPJ Convention: Reporter's Notebook p.18

By: Mark Fitzgerald THE FOLLOWING IS a collection of brief items on things that took place at the recent Society of Professional Journalists annual convention in St. Paul.

Gift pens give
some SPJers a stroke

There might be a news industry association more squeaky-clean on ethics than SPJ ? but it's hard to imagine a group that is more given to such relentless ethical self-examinations.
Again in 1995, SPJ tackled the issue of revising its code of ethics, an always contentious issue that has periodically engaged the society since 1926. One of the drafters of this year's revision opined that while the debates are grueling and sometimes bruising, he would like to see SPJ redraft an ethics code every two years.
Convention-goers, too, are notorious for finding things amiss at their annual gathering. This year, the object of some members' ire was a ballpoint pen packaged along with other goodies in convention bags. The pens were donated by Philip Morris ? the food and tobacco company that, along with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, sued ABC News for more than $10 billion over a report that cigarette makers "spiked" their products with nicotine.
In a settlement this summer, ABC broadcast a statement that the tobacco companies crowed an apology. SPJ should not be accepting convention souvenirs from a company that sues reporters, several members said.
Also distributing pens at the convention was the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. The green and yellow pens, scored at their tips to vaguely resemble corn kernels, were inscribed with the legend: "This pen made of 60% cornstarch."


When SPJ president Reggie Stuart asked humorist Garrison Keillor to donate his trademark red tie for an impromptu SPJ Legal Defense Fund auction, the "Prairie Home Companion" host demurred. Instead, at the end of his keynote address, Keillor pulled off his red socks ? another trademark item of clothing for the high priest of whimsy ? and offered them for sale. They sold for $250.

No fan of 'public journalism'

Mixed in with his ? trademark ? wry and whimsical storytelling, Keillor had a serious message for journalists in his keynote address: Beware of public journalism.
"These stories that these focus groups want you to tell, all about the good things and so forth ? that is preaching. And you are not preachers," he said."You know preachers are [our] natural enemies, people who already know the conclusion before they know the evidence. We are in another line of work ? we are in the business of telling stories.
"This is the future of newspapers ? not in good works, not in doing color graphics. But stories, which newspapers tell better than anybody else," Keillor added. "Television cannot tell a story as well as you can in writing. The story of O.J. Simpson has not been told . . . on television. But it will be told ? and it will be told by a writer."

The UFO folks

SPJ's convention attracted an eclectic assortment of exhibitors. Some could be expected: news groups such as the Investigative Reporters and Editors, interest groups such as the National Rifle Association, or industry associations such as the American Petroleum Institute. And at a convention which devoted several seminars to reporting on food and agricultural issues, it's not surprising that the International Apple Institute would be on hand.
Tougher to explain, though, were such groups as the Cat Fanciers' Association, which explained that while 1993 was the Year of the Cat in many Asian cultures, "at . . . CFA, every year is the Year of the Cat!"
The Fund for UFO Research was on hand ? and very happy, at their first foray at any news industry convention, about the attention they were getting from journalists.
"What we aim to do is fund research that applies scientific standards to UFOs. There is only so far that enthusiastic amateurs can go," said Don Berliner, an aviation and science writer who is one of the directors of the Mt. Rainier, Maryland-based fund.
If there were a prize for the SPJ exhibitor with the most offbeat views, however, the UFO researchers would have had competition from the Metric Program, a group that wants to accelerate the United States' adoption of the metric measuring system.

Top 10 reasons SPJ
should have an ethics code

(Read by Kevin Z. Smith, SPJ's national ethics committee chairman, before the three-hour debate on changes to the ethics code. Ultimately, convention delegates voted to return the revisions to the committee for possible action at next year's convention.)
10. Immediately associates us with lawyers.
9. Gives us something to talk about now that Lou Grant is off the air.
8. Heady conversation keeps bartender from cutting us off.
7. Parents failed miserably to teach us anything.
6. We have an uncontrollable desire to teach ourselves anything.
5. Have to give public a reason to dislike us.
4. Ethics "code" sounds a lot like "commode."
3. Comes in handy for covering up memos from publishers and station managers.
2. Only way to get 600 people to argue over a cheap pen.
1. Two letters: O.J.


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