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Media Should Carefully Weigh Government Requests Regarding Coverage of U.S. War on Terrorism, says SPJ


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Al Cross
, SPJ President, 502/648-8433 or across@mis.net
Robert Leger, SPJ President-Elect, 417/836-1113 or rleger@springfi.gannett.com
Charles N. Davis, Co-Chairman of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee, 573/882-5736 or charles_davis@jour.missouri.edu

INDIANAPOLIS – Government officials should avoid asking news organizations to revise their news practices, and media outlets should be careful about giving in to government pressure at a time of national distress, the Society of Professional Journalists said today.

The Society’s statement was prompted by six television networks’ joint decision not to air unedited tape of Osama bin Laden, after National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told them such tapes might contain coded messages. The White House now says it plans to extend the request to newspapers and other electronic news media. While SPJ rendered no organizational opinion about the television networks’ decision, it urged all news media to be guided by their independent news judgment and reject overly broad attempts to influence the information they disseminate to the public.

“Government officials have a right to express their concern about such matters, but they should be very careful about using the weight of the White House, especially on federally regulated broadcasters,” said SPJ President Al Cross. “The networks’ decision to more carefully handle such material is defensible, but it should not create an expectation on the part of the government that further efforts to control content will be successful. Government officials should also be wary of crying wolf.”

Today’s statement by the nation’s largest and most broadly based association of journalists follows earlier warnings to the profession and the government about the dangers of government pressure. Delegates to the national SPJ convention last weekend said in a resolution passed without dissent, “It is especially important during times of national crisis for journalists to hold those in power accountable, without acceding to pressure from government officials to withhold information from the people.”

Neither the press nor the public is served by a quick capitulation to government pressure. Nor is democracy itself, SPJ leaders said today.

“Americans are smart enough to separate propaganda from truth, and they should have the opportunity to do so. Freedom is made stronger when there is a vibrant marketplace of ideas,” said Cross, a political columnist for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. “Let the White House run the war, and let us report the news.”

One network executive was quoted as saying of the broadcasters who were party to the call from the White House, “Nobody took umbrage at this.”

“Well, they should have,” responded Charles N. Davis, co-chair of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee and executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri. “The statements by Osama bin Laden are available through many avenues throughout the world. Americans alone should not be denied the opportunity to hear from this man, however heinous his crimes may be. Pressure from the government to limit coverage, especially when it's aimed at supressing ‘propaganda,’ simply creates propaganda of our own. That should worry all journalists and all Americans.”

Ultimately, the only loser here is the American public, said SPJ President-Elect Robert Leger, editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.

“Government control of information in the news media – or self-censorship under government pressure – cannot and will not avert acts of terrorism,” Leger said. “As we learned Sept. 11, no one is immune from such atrocities. The job of the news media is to seek truth and report it by providing Americans with as much information as possible from a variety of sources. Those objectives can only be hindered when journalists knuckle under to government pressure to curtail ‘propaganda’ or suppress information that is readily available elsewhere.”

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


Sarah A. Shrode
Director of Communications
Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center
3909 N. Meridian St.
Indianapolis, IN 46208-4045
fax: 317/920-4789

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