A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists


By Quill

In addition to the usual excitement and anticipation of an approaching SPJ National Convention, some apprehension also filled the final planning meetings and conversations leading up to the 2001 gathering in the Pacific Northwest. In the end, the convention took place as planned Oct. 4-6 in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Wash. – a little more than three weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. SPJ volunteer leaders, convention planners and staff convened frequently to review a day or a week’s events as they made the decisions about whether to continue as planned or cancel the convention. There were important factors to consider. Safety was at the top of everyone’s list. Would it be safe – or even possible – to fly? Would the country soon be in a state of war? Could a gathering like SPJ’s convention attract possible threats? Job responsibilities were another big concern. Days out from the attacks, some SPJ members continued working 18-hour shifts in their newsrooms to report on the fallout from the tragedy. Even as days passed, and the pace moved from frantic to steady, it was clear that a U.S. response was coming. Should SPJ be responsible for pulling 800 journalists from their newsrooms at a time when they might be most needed? Would an employer even allow those journalists to make the trip? Other journalism groups had already cancelled their events; should SPJ follow? With all these questions, SPJ leaders met by conference call Sept. 13 and put in place a plan to proceed – with procedures for frequent re-evaluation of the situation. The SPJ convention would continue as planned, unless one or more of the following took place: 1) The Federal Aviation Administration grounded flights again; 2) War was declared, or the United States became involved in military operations; or 3) Convention registrations started dropping at an alarming rate. With a procedure in place, planning continued. But for convention programmers, some of their tightest deadlines had just been handed to them. Journalists had new reporting priorities, and convention planners moved quickly to rework the conference schedule. Recognizing the practical and ethical issues surrounding coverage of the attacks and the following events, planners added programs that discussed: covering disasters; the care and handling of controversial photos; how reporters told the stories of the individuals affected by the attacks; new challenges America will face in accessing government information; the important role of religion reporting following the crisis; and how trauma changes the story – and the journalist. Journalists who had been on-site during the events in New York and Washington, D.C., shared their stories, and convention attendees paused to remember the lives that were lost. And they spent the weekend learning how to carry on and improve their own work. Initially, convention planners worried about a sharp decline in attendance. But their fears proved unwarranted; the final numbers showed more people attended the Seattle program than any other convention since 1998. While the Sept. 11 attacks were the main topics of conversation, the weekend held other highlights: Convention attendees relaxed and took in the sights during the Opening Night Reception at EMP – Experience Music Project – in downtown Seattle. The multimedia event took place in the Sky Church, where participants were treated to a massive video display and state-of-the-art acoustics. Bus trips followed to Pioneer Square, home of Seattle’s exciting nightlife. Some attendees again took advantage of the convention location and registered for a guided tour of MSNBC.com’s electronic newsroom located on the Microsoft campus and a visit to the top of Seattle’s famous Space Needle. The multimedia scene continued the next day with a celebration of the First Amendment presented by the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. Live music and video clips were part of a trivia contest as participants looked back at actions that intruded on the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ken Paulson, executive director of the center, led the session and said only one in 10 people know all five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment – freedom of speech, religion, press, petition and assembly. Via a live satellite feed, journalists in Asia and America met, initially to discuss what happens when self-imposed restraints prevent a journalist from accurately and openly reporting on certain issues. The journalists in Seattle and Hong Kong talked about how the military can manipulate the media, the importance of proper training and how China and Hong Kong covered the terrorist attacks. (See full story on Page 42.) SPJ’s International Journalism Committee organized the discussion. Student journalists took center stage more than once during the weekend with opportunities for professional development and recognition. Student programming ranged from a discussion of ethical decision-making processes to convergence trends in the newsroom. The American Society of Newspaper Editors and The Seattle Times sponsored a job fair for minority journalism students, and about 50 students participated in individual critique sessions where print and broadcast journalists, educators and recruiters evaluated their resumes and work samples. Eleven student journalists published The Working Press, the daily newspaper of the convention. (Read the day-by-day Working Press coverage online at www.spj.org.) SPJ honored outstanding student journalism during the Mark of Excellence Awards luncheon. Geneva Overholser, a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, spoke at the luncheon and told students and others that journalists are public servants. “Our work is indispensable, but when we think we are it becomes a problem,” she said. SPJ presented more than 100 awards to outstanding journalists, students, educators and SPJ members and chapters for work during the past year. SPJ Past President Steve Geimann received SPJ’s highest honor, the Wells Memorial Key, for his years of service to the organization. SPJ chapter delegates elected new officers to lead the Society, and Al Cross, political columnist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., became president of the organization. Delegates also debated and passed 11 resolutions stating the Society’s positions on issues from media coverage of the war on terrorism and the importance of diverse voices to condemning the U.S. Justice Department’s subpoena of a journalist’s phone records. Read all the resolutions on Pages 5-7 of SPJ Report this month. In the past, SPJ increased awareness of its Legal Defense Fund during an annual roast of a high profile journalist. This year, the event was more somber than the roasts of past years. The guest of honor wasn’t present – she was in a jail cell in Texas. Free-lance writer Vanessa Leggett was jailed for refusing to turn over to authorities her interview notes. Mike DeGeurin, Leggett’s attorney, passionately reminded journalists that, like his client, they must fight to maintain First Amendment rights. The Federal Bureau of Prisons denied the Society’s request to videotape an interview with Leggett, but in a letter to SPJ, Leggett wrote, “While others have quibbled over whether I was a journalist, the SPJ saw through the government’s smoke screen and honored its own stated commitment to represent ‘every branch and rank of … journalists,’ even a true crime writer the government ranked a nobody.” SPJ gave Leggett a $12,500 Legal Defense Fund grant to help her case. During the weekend, attendees raised more than $5,600 to continue to support individuals and organizations facing legal battles to preserve a free press and open government. Convention attendees met with representatives from more than 20 media organizations and companies during InfoMart 2001, the Convention’s official tradeshow. Exhibitors included Business Wire, Environmental Media Services, Microsoft bCentral, The Poynter Institute, Population Reference Bureau and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. also sent representatives to Bellevue to address journalists’ concerns regarding the events of Sept. 11 and access to federal government and agency information. As the convention closed, SPJ leaders recognized the efforts of the Western Washington Pro Chapter – the host chapter and key organizers for the 2001 event. Five years of planning and preparation went into the four-day conference, and the local chapter shouldered most of that responsibility, while at the same time carrying on its work on the local level. The chapter was rewarded as the 2001 SPJ Outstanding Large Chapter of the Year. Next year, SPJ’s National Convention heads south to Ft. Worth, Texas. Journalists will be “Staking New Frontiers” as they gather Sept. 12-14. Initial programming plans include a look back one year after the terrorist attacks, an evaluation of politics and news coverage in the home state of President George W. Bush; and a hard look at how rapidly changing demographics in ethnic populations affect coverage and the newsroom. More 2002 National Convention information will be posted at SPJ’s Web site – www.spj.org – in the coming weeks.