The Society of Professional Journalists is a strong organization in part because of our chapters, where local journalists often turn for support when challenged, attacked or even put in danger doing their jobs.
Here are just a few examples of how our chapter leaders have stepped in to defend and protect journalists.
When veteran political reporter Abdul-Hakim Shabazz was denied access to a press conference in October in Indianapolis for Attorney General Todd Rokita, the SPJ Indiana Pro Chapter voiced its objection. The chapter and then-president, Mike Puente, challenged Rokita in a statement that included: “These actions reflect a cavalier and indifferent regard for the First Amendment and the Indiana state laws you are sworn to uphold.” The chapter demanded an apology. Rokita has yet to respond to the SPJ chapter. But Shabazz once again has access to press conferences.
Also, in October, the SPJ St. Louis Pro Chapter challenged Missouri Governor Mike Parson when he called for a criminal investigation into a journalist from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The reporter had uncovered that a state website exposed the Social Security numbers of thousands of public school teachers. Reporter Josh Renaud informed the state of the exposure, but rather than show appreciation, Parson called him a “hacker” and threatened criminal prosecution.
“It is disturbing, to say the least, that the governor’s response to this potentially catastrophic exposure was to shoot the messenger,” said St. Louis Chapter President Elizabeth Donald. “Blaming the press for uncovering government missteps may have become a national pastime, but in this case, the journalists involved actually saved the state from a disastrous and costly breach. Covering the state’s embarrassment with threats of prosecution is unworthy of a governor sworn to uphold the Constitution.”
In November, SPJ celebrated the release of Danny Fenster from a Myanmar prison. An American journalist, Fenster had been taken off a flight to Detroit and accused by the government of sedition and terrorism.
“The family requested that we don’t forget Danny,” said SPJ Detroit Pro Chapter President Beth Konrad. The chapter and the rest of Detroit media made sure Fenster was not forgotten.
“This is a story that resonated with all local journalists who said this is an injustice to our profession. It hit home to us very personally,” said Konrad. Former New Mexico Governor and UN Ambassador Bill Richardson negotiated Fenster’s release — just days after the journalist was sentenced to 11 years of hard labor in Myanmar.
In February, the SPJ Virginia Pro Chapter stepped in when Virginia Sen. Louise Lucas used her Twitter account to attack a reporter who asked her questions at Capitol Square. Dina Weinstein, president of the SPJ Virginia Pro Chapter, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that elected officials are used to speaking with the press on Capitol Square, and Lucas’ tweets weren’t an appropriate way to handle her concerns. “I think it’s important not to villainize the press,” said Weinstein.
Journalism is in good hands on the local level because SPJ pro chapters and their leaders continue being our organization’s “boots on the ground.” They’ll continue to step up when journalists are denied the opportunity to get the facts and inform the public. It’s what I call #SPJChapterStrong.
We all need a team for support and I encourage all members to join a local SPJ chapter and get involved. And if there isn’t a chapter nearby, now is the time to start one.
In my next column, we’ll visit SPJ student chapters, which have become a strong support network for the next generation of truth seekers. Stay tuned.