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SPJ Headlines


7/11/2002


UT-Tyler offers to reinstate student adviser
Administrators at the University of Texas at Tyler have offered to reinstate a faculty member and student publications adviser, following inquiries by the Society of Professional Journalists and other journalism organizations.

SPJ said that there was substantial evidence that the dismissal of Vanessa Curry, a journalism lecturer and adviser to The Patriot, was spurred by her students' aggressive journalism. SPJ joined several organizations in calling on UT-Tyler President Rodney Mabry to explain Curry's dismissal and to change plans to put editorial and personnel matters under the control of a student publications committee dominated by administrators.

SPJ's Board of Directors voted April 27 to authorize a task force to investigate the situation, and SPJ President Al Cross appointed the group this week.

The task force chair, Dr. Fred Blevens of Southwest Texas State University, said UT-Tyler's arts and sciences dean, Donna Dickerson, told him that concerns voiced by SPJ and the Southwest Education Council for Journalism and Mass Communications, of which Blevens is president, were "major factors" in the decision to rehire Curry.

Mabry agreed to proposed student publication guidelines that give students a strong voice in determining content and selecting the adviser and editor of the campus newspaper.

The proposed guidelines include a newly structured student publications governing committee with five students (one from each college within the university), two professionals, the dean of student affairs and three faculty members (one from the communication department, one at large and one appointed by the Faculty Senate).

The advisory board and the communication department will recommend candidates for adviser, but appointment power will belong to Dickerson. The dean also said any new policy concerning student publications would need her approval before being made part of university policy. The advisory committee will select the editor.

UT-Tyler administrators told Curry last month that they were not renewing her contract for next year, a decision widely viewed as a reaction to her students' persistent requests for information under the Texas Open Records Act.

"The newspaper just got a little too aggressive for their tastes," Department of Communication Chairman Kenneth Casstevens told the Dallas Morning News. He said the newspaper had greatly improved during Curry's tenure.

Cross, a political writer and columnist at The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal, hailed the university's decision. "President Mabry is to be commended for showing the courage to support a free press by continuing Ms. Curry's contract and adopting traditional guidelines that preserve First Amendment rights essential to the practice of journalism on and off campus," he said.

Cross asked task force members to closely monitor the implementation of the guidelines during the next few months. Blevens and Travis Poling, president of the San Antonio SPJ Chapter, were scheduled to visit the campus next week. Former SPJ President Phil Record, formerly a senior editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and now a faculty member at Texas Christian University, had agreed to assist in the probe.

Blevens lauded the work of Dickerson, who as dean of arts and sciences worked long hours gathering and presenting evidence in Ms. Curry's defense. Blevens said Dickerson persuaded the administration that the proposed guidelines were not consistent with those practiced on most other campuses and those recommended by the Student Press Law Center.

"Dean Dickerson is a respected scholar of the First Amendment, having published numerous books and articles on free expression," Blevens said. "Although it is sad that it took nearly a month for her voice to be heard, I'm pleased with the proposed outcome and look forward to working with her and President Mabry on these issues."

Jim Highland, SPJ vice president for campus affairs, spoke directly with Mabry about the controversy. "He was reluctant initially to reverse the decision on the adviser, but I am happy that he took the opportunity to meet with his dean over the communications program, examine all the issues involved and determine that the information he had been provided up to that point may not have been accurate," said Highland.

He said the outcome at UT-Tyler should send a signal that administrators across the nation should be very cautious when they consider actions that threaten the campus press. "This is a victory, yes, but not one that we should have to earn campus by campus," said Highland. "We can only hope that the powerful message from this episode will help guide such decision-making at universities nationwide."

IRE AND SPJ to partner on better watchdog workshops
Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and the Society of Professional Journalists have joined forces to conduct a series of "Better Watchdog Workshops" for beat reporters.

The workshops will teach journalists how to do investigative and enterprise reporting while on a beat, emphasizing the use of Freedom of Information laws in the pursuit of these stories. The workshops will specifically serve both print and broadcast journalists from small- to medium-size news organizations.

IRE has conducted several of these workshops in the past few years, the most recent drawing 130 journalists from a four-state region to Madison, Wis., last month.

The initial funding will come from SPJ's Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, and further support will be sought from local news organizations and associations. Training materials will include IRE's Beat Book series and SPJ's Open Doors handbook for reporters, also funded by the SDX Foundation.

IRE Executive Director Brant Houston and SPJ President Al Cross made a joint announcement of the project, following funding of its first phase by the SDX Foundation last week.

"This is an exciting collaboration in a time of tight training budgets and draws from the strengths of both organizations," said IRE Executive Director Brant Houston.

"It comes at a time when freedom of information is under attack as never before," said Cross. "One of the best ways to defend that freedom is to use it, and that's what these workshops will be about."

Cross and Houston also noted that the two organizations were responding to a recent Knight Foundation survey that found journalists' biggest dissatisfaction was with a lack of training.

"Our organizations have a strong background in professional development and are happy to step forward to help meet this need," said Cross, a political writer and columnist at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal.

Houston said the workshops answer a plea from journalists at smaller news organizations to hold more regional workshops to which they can afford to travel.

"These workshops demonstrate the grass-roots spirit that endures at both IRE and SPJ," Houston said.

Sites and dates for the workshops will be determined cooperatively. Some will be incorporated into SPJ regional conferences and other IRE training activities.

In most cases, workshops will consist of one day of intensive instruction. In some cases, a second day of training will be offered in computer-assisted reporting.

For more information, journalists should visit the groups' Web sites: www.ire.org and www.spj.org .

Senate Bill 1456 threatens public access
The Society of Professional Journalists urged Congress not to further weaken the Freedom of Information Act and pose other obstacles to traditional newsgathering and public access as it considers legislation on private companies' sharing of information with the federal government.

SPJ submitted comments in May on Senate Bill 1456, which would protect corporations and other private entities that report security problems with computer systems that control "critical infrastructure" -- such things as chemical plants, public utilities and water facilities. In return for providing the information and assisting the government in solving security problems, private entities would be immune from federal sanctions under the bill. In addition, all information about the reporting and any federal responses would be kept confidential.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, many corporate interests are calling on Congress to exempt all records "voluntarily" submitted to federal regulators under the bill's provisions. SPJ, the nation's largest and broadest journalism organization, is warning that the bill could have disastrous implications on public scrutiny and accountability of the government and corporations.

In a letter to the sponsor of S. 1456, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and staff members representing the leadership of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, SPJ Freedom of Information Co-Chairman Ian Marquand said existing exemptions in the FOIA covering trade secrets and other legitimate confidential business information are adequate to protect sensitive information that companies might report to the government. In addition, SPJ believes that communities deserve to know if there are risks or problems associated with systems controlling potentially hazardous facilities.

SPJ's official comments submitted to the chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs are available online at www.spj.org.

Golf and tennis associations' background checks for journalists are too intrusive
The Society of Professional Journalists and one of its chapters, the Press Club of Long Island, objected recently to the U.S. Golf Association's new policy of background checks for journalists who wanted to cover the U.S. Open at Bethpage State Park on Long Island from June 13-16.

SPJ also took issue with similar demands being imposed on journalists by the U.S. Tennis Association for its U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows, N.Y., from Aug. 27 through Sept. 9.

In a letter to USGA Executive Director David Fay, SPJ leaders said the association's demands that journalists wanting to cover the Open allow USGA to examine "any and all records" relating to them, and waive all liability for use of such records, go far beyond reason.

"These demands may be the most intrusive made of journalists at any sporting event in this country. They could lead to the disclosure of private information, such as medical and financial data, and could be interpreted as harassment," wrote Al Cross, president of SPJ, and Carl Corry, who works for the Long Island Business News and is print media vice president of the Press Club of Long Island.

"Journalists gladly document their identities and employment to prevent others from masquerading as representatives of media outlets," Cross and Corry wrote. "This procedure has proven sufficient even after Sept. 11 at events requiring much tighter security, such as President Bush's visits to military bases."

Cross, political writer and columnist for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, said today that when he covered Bush's visit to Fort Campbell, Ky., in November, he merely had to provide a photo ID and a letter on company stationery confirming his employment. "We see no reason why the USGA and the U.S. Open require any more security than that," he and Corry said in their letter.

A similar letter was sent to Rick Ferman, executive director of the U.S. Tennis Association.

In writing the golf association, SPJ added its voice to protests by the Associated Press Sports Editors and six news outlets - The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Tribune Co., which owns Newsday, based on Long Island.

Medical journal's commitment to ethical reporting serves as example for others, says SPJ
The Society of Professional Journalists commends the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) for its continued commitment to accuracy and full disclosure in the eminently newsworthy arena of medical studies.

In its June 5 issue, JAMA revisits the ethically charged area of peer review of medical studies, devoting the entire issue to the subject. The journal's editor, Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, said the issue "is our attempt to police ourselves, to question ourselves and to look at better ways to make sure that we're honest and straightforward and maintain the integrity of the journals."

"It is gratifying to see JAMA's courage and honesty in turning the microscope on its own profession, and particularly in its pointing out that conflicts can arise when drug studies are funded by the drug industry, a powerful influence in the medical community," said Fred Brown, a co-chair of SPJ's Ethics Committee and former political editor at The Denver Post. "Integrity is imperative in any truth-seeking endeavor," Brown said. "That includes journalism as well as medicine."

SPJ, the nation's largest and broadest journalism organization, puts heavy emphasis on ethics in its effort to promote responsible journalism. The SPJ Code of Ethics, first adopted in 1926 and most recently revised in 1996, urges journalists to "be accountable" and to call attention to unethical practices in journalism. That includes specialized journals such as JAMA.

"Our Code calls on us to 'clarify and explain news coverage,' " said Gary Hill, SPJ's Ethics Committee chair and director of investigations at KSTP-TV in the Twin Cities. "I think that is what JAMA did in this case. It can only enhance their credibility that they freely expose and examine their own shortcomings."

SPJ recognizes that this is a longstanding concern of JAMA. In a 1986 editorial announcing the AMA's first peer-review congress, Dr. Drummond Rennie, JAMA's deputy editor, cited "the appalling standards" for studies that meant "there are scarcely any bars to eventual publication." The journal now requires its authors to reveal any financial interests they have in subjects they write about, disclose who paid for studies that are subjects of their reports, and specify which authors of multiple-byline pieces conducted which parts of a study.

"Such safeguards are especially important for journals that deal with life-and-death matters and are supported in large part by manufacturers of drugs and medical equipment," said SPJ President Al Cross, a political writer and columnist for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. "Journalists for the mainstream and specialty publications would do well to follow JAMA's example. Reporters and editors should ensure that their own reporting recognizes the problem areas the medical journal cites, such as sources of funding, adequacy of peer review, exaggerations, misleading results and plain old inaccuracies."

SPJ asks Massachusetts DOC to drop proposed inmate interview restrictions
The Society of Professional Journalists issued a letter urging Massachusetts Department of Correction Commissioner Michael T. Maloney to drop a series of proposed restrictions that would greatly limit the ability of journalists to interview inmates at state prisons.

The changes proposed by the DOC would prohibit interviews with inmates in segregation units, deny the use of cameras or tape recorders at medium- and maximum-security prisons, and require that a guard or prison official be present for all inmate interviews. Also, telephone interviews could be severely limited, and interviews with inmates in solitary confinement would be eliminated outright.

In addition, the policy calls for the Department of Correction to approve requests based on a set of factors, including whether "access would result in a significant benefit to law enforcement agencies." Such content-based qualifications on access are completely unwarranted, and quite possibly unconstitutional, and clearly signal an unwillingness to embrace the public scrutiny that is part of the process.

The Society wrote, "The department's proposed rules stifle media coverage of prisons and prisoners at a time when the public more than ever needs the information journalists often garner from interviews with prisoners." SPJ encouraged Commissioner Maloney to "remain mindful of the importance of public scrutiny of the corrections department and the thousands of inmates in its charge," and to "put the needs of the public first, and to grant access to (corrections) facilities for any bona fide news event."

"Prison policies such as these are designed to shut out the public and press," said Charles N. Davis, SPJ Freedom of Information co-chairman. "The correctional industry is the only functional unit of state governance free from the scrutiny of an active press, and it is at our peril that we allow prisons to run in the dark."

Copies of the letter were sent to the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Correction, the editorial boards of The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and the Boston Phoenix, the Massachusetts Newspaper Association and the governor of the state of Massachusetts. The letter is available online at www.spj.org.



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