SPJ 2020 Journalism Conference • Sept. 12-13, 2020



SPJ values remain stable despite unstable times

By Billy O'Keefe

By Sommer Ingram
The Society of Professional Journalists, despite the industry’s continual challenges, is staying true to its mission: to equip journalists with the skills to succeed.
As SPJ opened its annual convention in Las Vegas on Sunday, SPJ leaders said the most important issue is continuing to diligently deliver services that members need, whether that is online training, practical classroom applications for journalism educators or hands-on training.
Other priorities for SPJ include the passage of a federal shield law, keeping ethical standards in tact and increasing SPJ’s international presence.
“At a time when the profession is going through an upheaval, there are a lot of journalists either out of work or trying to get new skills for new work,” said Steve Geimann, president of the board of directors. “And it’s important that SPJ be at the leading edge of delivering training and preparing today’s journalists for the newsrooms of tomorrow.”
A sluggish economy, plummeting advertising revenue and the advent of new technologies have forced many publications to buy out or lay off staff, leaving many journalists uncertain about the future. With the Internet and social media shifting the role of the traditional journalist, SPJ wants to ensure that members are sufficiently equipped to work.
Hagit Limor, SPJ president-elect, said the organization wants to include all of its constituencies in its training and outreach efforts, including citizen journalists from less traditional media outlets to ensure that journalistic fundamentals stand unchanged.
“Everyone who contributes to their community in that fashion could benefit from what SPJ has to offer,” Limor said. “The challenge is to come back to what we’ve stood for all along for more than 100 years in SPJ, and that is the truth.”
Outgoing SPJ President Kevin Smith agreed that improving ethical standards for journalists remains a core SPJ principle, one that the ethics committee plans to address in the coming year.
“Being objective and simply reporting the news seems to have lost its appeal,” Smith said. “It’s a growing notion that just reporting the news isn’t good enough, that somehow you have to engage the readers and tell them what you think.”
Although most states have shield laws that protect journalists who use anonymous sources from prosecution in court or jail time, there is no such protection on the federal level. Passage of such a law is a priority for many journalists and for SPJ, with Smith at the forefront.
Smith said the value of a federal shield law lies not in its ability to protect sources, or even journalists, but in its power to protect the free flow of information from the government to the people.
“If we continue to throw journalists in jail and drive them into court with subpoenas, essentially what’s going to happen is journalists are going to stop doing the kinds of investigative stories that need to be done,” he said.
Although Smith said the shield law has moved further along in Congress this year than in the past, some senators still object to the bill’s definition of a journalist. Smith hopes the Senate will vote on the bill by December.
The SPJ has not limited its battles to the United States. The organization has heightened its international awareness by building on relationships with various foreign press outlets, particularly in Asia, where Smith has attended international conferences. SPJ recently introduced its first international chapter in Qatar.
“As Americans, we have not recognized that we have a lot of similarities to other countries,” Smith said. “But I think a lot of the conversations I hear journalists talking about in other countries are mirror images of what’s happening in the United States.”
Smith said he planned to introduce a resolution at the convention with the expectation that SPJ will continue to encourage the development of chapters worldwide. India and Iraq have already expressed interest in starting their own chapters, Smith said.
“We can’t change what’s happening in the industry, but we have to be nimble enough and agile enough so that we stay relevant,” Geimann said. “I think that as more and more uncertainty arises, more journalists are looking to an organization like SPJ saying ‘help us find a way,’ and I think we’re doing a very good job on that score.”




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