The first call came 12 hours after I raised my hand and swore to uphold the traditions and values of the Society of Professional Journalists as president.
Students at Marshall University complained that their school’s police department had two sets of blotters detailing crime on campus, one the police released to their student paper, the Parthenon, a second that reflected true crime reports as mandated by the federal Clery Act, which requires colleges to report campus crime in a log accessible to the public.
The students learned of this after the Charleston Gazette published a story based on a Marshall University Police report alleging a gang rape at the freshman dorm. Parthenon reporters say they asked police for the same crime log the Gazette had received but got a “police blotter” with no information about a sexual assault. They only got the second binder — labeled “Clery Act” — when they returned.
If only that first call were an exception — one police department trying to manage and control the information it releases — the journalists of today could focus on issues beyond the most basic tenet of access to public records.
Sadly, it’s a daily battle across the land, for student journalists, professional journalists and the public at large, all of whom have equal rights to walk into any police department or courthouse, ask for information gathered on the public’s dime and get it. Perhaps some of it will be redacted due to security concerns, a topic for another day. But the very existence of the records should never be denied.
Yet censorship of information happens all the time. Just one week later SPJ joined an amicus brief in a case public records case. The NAACP requested Maryland State Police records detailing complaints of racial profiling by a trooper. This is a request any reporter might make. It’s part of our watchdog role to explore how governmental agencies and their employees function.
The state police said no, calling the requested complaints “personnel records” exempt from Maryland’s Public Information Act, even though the request didn’t ask for details of the trooper’s private life, only how he performed his job, public service paid with public funds.
Even as that case heads to Maryland’s Supreme Court, the U.S. Senate has passed new exceptions to what the nation’s primary transportation safety agency must tell the public. The Senate wants the National Transportation Safety Board to get a pass on certain portions of the federal Freedom of Information Act. Here you have an agency performing a role of grave interest to the public. It looks into safety violations in aviation, rail, shipping, pipelines and hazardous material. The new exceptions would let the agency keep secret records that now are open as the agency investigates accidents and infractions.
Every day, we have to fight for what seems so obvious, so basic, so inseparable from the role our Founding Fathers set for an independent press to safeguard our democracy. Yet what we have represents the ideal that journalists in other countries wish to emulate.
Never did this come into my focus so clearly until this fall, when then-president Kevin Smith and I visited Qatar to inaugurate our first international chapter at Northwestern University’s campus in Doha. We met 55 young men and women from a dozen Middle Eastern countries, most of which don’t offer a free press. It’s not a part of the DNA of their governmental structure.
These budding journalists spoke of taboo topics, state-controlled media and difficulties Western journalists don’t contemplate. For example, female journalists can’t interview males without chaperones, so as not to upset customs that forbid women from being alone with men. Despite the challenges, these young reporters are pushing the envelopes of their societies, facing possible repercussions.
I watched some of their stories, most reflecting on how the modern, Internet-exposed world is colliding with their centuries-old traditions. One story, “Unveiled,” did just that to the controversy behind the veil, interviewing women on whether they should cover up per tradition, women who bravely showed themselves with and without their head coverings.
Bravery defines the work of these young journalists as well. Why do they do it? One after another they answered as if in one voice. They’ve found the liberating power of truth. They recognize their stories can change their countries in profound ways. They’re willing to chance their personal freedoms for the greater good of their societies.
In other words, they believe their journalism can shape their world much the way ours helped shape this country centuries ago. A worthy fight then, a worthy fight today.
This is why SPJ speaks out on a local, state and federal level, on behalf of college newspapers, for the rights of citizens like the NAACP, and against the ratcheting down of information for all.
If we are to remain the model journalists in other countries emulate, we can’t allow a retrenchment of the freedoms we hold dear.
Hagit Limor is the 2010-11 SPJ president. She is an investigative reporter at E.W. Scripps’ WCPO-TV in Cincinnati. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.