Our SPJ colleagues in Colorado have produced a video that I’d like to bring to your attention.
The video was born out of the frustration many of us felt after coming so tantalizing close to passage of a national shield law for journalists in late 2010.
But then came WikiLeaks, and the bipartisan support we had won came unglued. At the end of that debate, you might have thought that the whole point of the shield law was to deal with Julian Assange.
Lost in that debate was the simple fact of the people a shield law was meant to protect: hard-working journalists whose work shines a light on those dark or unnoticed corners of society. It’s work that is vital to the health of a democracy.
So last spring, a group of volunteers set out to remind people of the real beneficiaries of a shield law: not just the journalists who produce this valuable work, but the readers, viewers and listeners who depend upon it.
To drive home this point, we assembled a cast of mostly non-journalists. They included a lawyer, a hospice director, a public relations professional, a bartender, a gadfly and a law student.
The only journalist in the bunch was a 16-year-old crusading editor of a high school newspaper.
The one common denominator of the group was the appreciation of the work journalists do.
Under the direction of my SPJ colleague Cynthia Hessin and the camera work of my friend Jerome Ryden, we gathered one Saturday morning in the Denver studio of Rocky Mountain PBS.
They took turns reading lines that began with the refrain, “Because of a journalist …”
“Because of a journalist … I know who used steroids in baseball.”
“Because of a journalist … I know who covered up the Watergate break-in.”
“Because of a journalist … I know about the torture at Abu Ghraib.”
I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a slick video. The people speaking these lines are clearly not polished actors or spokesmen.
They are just regular folks who happen to believe that the work we do matters.
That’s why I screened this video on the night I took my oath as SPJ president in New Orleans.
That’s also why I’m asking chapter leaders if they would consider screening this video at the start of their next SPJ event or posting it to their chapter website. It’s on YouTube.
Will any of this move us one bit closer to a national shield law? Not likely.
But in these tough times, I think it’s important to remind people of the value journalism has to those who rely on us for the work we do.
John Ensslin, a reporter for The Record in northern New Jersey, is the 2011-12 SPJ president. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.