Joy and excitement, anger and frustration, inspiration and hope. These are all emotions that have flooded through me during my term as SPJ president.
And I wouldn’t take back any of those moments for anything.
It has been an honor to represent all of you and speak out on behalf of journalists in support of a free press, government transparency and ethical journalism. Along the way I’ve had an opportunity to meet some of you and hear from more of you. For those I haven’t connected with, I hope our paths will cross soon.
I’ve noticed common themes emerge from meetings with fellow journalists and members of the public. The public’s trust in journalists is low — very low — and some of us are just not getting it. This is our reality. I hope it is not a reality that lasts for a long period of time, but we must recognize it is the current reality. We can continue to debate why people don’t trust “the media” or how we got here, or we can accept it and try to make it better. I am going to choose the latter and hope I’m followed, but the reality is some of us are out of touch. Not only are we out of touch, but we don’t even recognize we are out touch. To address this, we have to talk to and work to understand the communities we are covering. This includes all of America, those outside the beltways and miles away from the coasts.
The tension in the relationships between government officials and journalists is similarly high. If you’re a journalist interacting with government officials in any way, you already know this. It was never more clear how serious an issue this was than when I attended a recent training seminar. The room was filled primarily with journalists and law enforcement employees. The conversation was supposed to be focused on policing the police, but it quickly turned to accusations from both sides, questioning the integrity of each profession and the intent behind each others’ actions. Basic answers are sometimes hard to get because we are bombarded with questions in return. In the end it’s the public that loses.
Gaining access to government officials and information is hard, very hard. Last year we saw a bill pass to improve the Freedom of Information Act. While what was promised there is still making its way toward implementation, we are far from accessing information with ease. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, obtaining information from government agencies and officials is not a simple matter of request and receive. In addition, speaking to public officials, on the record with attribution, including those with titles of “spokesperson” or “communications officer” or “public information officer” is becoming harder and harder. SPJ has and will continue to take a stand against this form of censorship, and we hope you will too.
Attacks against press freedom and First Amendment rights are real. We’ve seen threats of violence turn into actual violence. We’ve seen threats of no press briefings from the top office in the country turn into a reality. We’ve seen embargoes added to official press releases. These attacks against press freedom are real and they are happening.
If you know me, you know I think there is always a solution. You probably also know I tend to err on the side of positivity. Below are some ways I think we can address these issues.
COMMUNICATE WITH THE PUBLIC
We must talk to and engage the public. Explain what journalism is and why it’s important. Show them how you gather news.
This goes hand in hand with communicating. Explain why you chose not to cover something, why you chose not to share the identity of someone in your story. Show them how you communicated with the people in your story.
DON’T GIVE IN TO PRESSURES FROM PIOS AND SPOKESPEOPLE
Granting anonymity is needed in some situations. Talking to government employees at a press briefing is not one of those. Provide the names of spokespeople whenever possible, don’t just attribute to an office or department.
SUPPORT AND FIGHT FOR ACCESS
When you are not given access to information or a public official, let the public know that access to their information and their officials was denied. Fight against PIO censorship and blockades to public information. Don’t let public information requests go unfulfilled. Follow up, file appeals and fight back.
We need to explain why a free press is important to democracy. Inform the public and your communities about our rights under the constitution.
It’s been my pleasure serving you. I am grateful to have had the opportunity. From the bottom of my heart, thank you!
Lynn Walsh is 2016-17 national SPJ president. She leads the NBC7 Investigates team in San Diego. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Connect on Twitter: @LWalsh.