Aug. 21, 2012  

SPJ Editorial: Red, Dead and Irrelevant?

By Lynn Walsh

While it may be over for the Red and Dead, the fast-paced events surrounding the shake-up and walk-out at the University of Georgia’s independent student newspaper, The Red and Black also caused a stir within the Society of Professional Journalists.

Lynn Walsh

Lynn Walsh

This post is not meant to be a play-by-play of what happened. It is also not meant to criticize. This post, I hope, will get every journalist thinking about the role of the editorial staff, a publication’s reputation and social media play in our daily lives. More importantly, how they work together for all parties involved.

A Quick Recap
As students were walking out of the newsroom in Athens, Georgia after a memo circulated describing new expectations for editors, SPJ Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky  and the SPJ South Florida Board were following the news through social media and other web updates. Koretzky was even able to get a journalist out on the front lines, recording video, audio interviews and more so that SPJ could have a better understanding of what really was going on there.

SPJ Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky

SPJ Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky

Koretzky, also our SPJ South Florida Immediate Past President, then posted a blog about the situation on the Region 3 site late Friday evening. Saturday morning, SPJ President John Ensslin called Koretzky and asked him to take it down. You can read more about that here. Koretzky then wrote about it, and now I am.

Why SPJ South Florida?
The SPJ South Florida chapter is the only active professional chapter in Region 3, the same region that UGA is located in. But it’s not just about location. We are writing about it because we care about journalism and we hope you do too.

While I was visiting family, my e-mail box was being flooded with messages between SPJ South Florida board members going back and forth about what happened with the post and what was happening at UGA. It wasn’t just fellow board members, though. I had others reach out to me as well, wondering: Was SPJ censoring its blog? And if so, doesn’t that go against what we believe in as journalists?

I decided to ask the SPJ President myself, and in a phone conversation Ensslin spoke very candidly with me about the situation. He said he did ask Koretzky to take the post down. “A lot of people mistook that [Koretzky’s blog] for SPJ’s official position in this place, in which case it is not,” Ensslin said Monday evening.

SPJ President John Ensslin

SPJ President John Ensslin

His concern: People were looking at what was written as the official position of SPJ, an organization that Ensslin describes as an advocacy group. So, is SPJ going to write about this and take an official position? Ensslin says they are, and a letter from him should be expected this week. He says he wants to do the proper research and make sure the facts are straight before publishing something.

Koretzky says he thinks people are smart enough to know the difference. “I just don’t believe anyone will confuse a statement from the national president of SPJ with a regional director writing about a regional issue on his regional blog,” he said in an e-mail to me. “I think you can have both things. One doesn’t need to wait for the other.”

Are people smart enough to know the difference? Do they understand and differentiate where the news and information they are reading is coming from? With more and more people using the internet as their primary source for information, I think it has become less clear for readers and viewers. That said, is it our responsibility as journalists to go out of our ways to differentiate what opinions/statements are our own and which belong to our news organizations? Or in this case, SPJ national versus SPJ regional?

What’s Next?
So, is SPJ going to write about this and take an official position? Ensslin says they are, and a letter from him should be expected this week. He says he wants to do the proper research and make sure the facts are straight before publishing something.

Sounds like good-old-fashioned journalism, right? I think we agree getting the information is correct with anything we do as journalists. But, with the new technology and constant online updates coming at us in all directions, is SPJ moving fast enough to be a relevant journalism advocacy group?

I think (I know) some would argue in this case, they may not have moved fast enough. Let’s face it: the situation is all about resolved, and SPJ still has not take an official stance on this latest controversy. Even Ensslin said, “they [the students] had won without SPJ’s help.”

So, was SPJ a relevant journalism advocacy group in this case? I would argue that in this case they were probably not, but I also understand that we are an organization made out of volunteers. As Ensslin said, SPJ is not a daily news organization that is responsible for writing opinions and thoughts on every breaking story.

While I agree with Ensslin, I also think think there is room to grow and use this lesson as a learning experience that I hope will create some change. While some of the people in higher positions in SPJ may not be as savvy when it comes to the new technologies, or they may not have the time or desire to pay attention to the breaking news updates as they happen, there are others who are willing and able to do it.

I think this is true in SPJ and in our newsrooms. Sometimes we get so bogged down with “the way it’s always been done,” that we lose touch of what we could be doing, and a lot of times we make it harder on ourselves. Our content can suffer as a result.

An editor may not take a chance on placing a call, sending a tweet or updating the web because they want it first on-air or in the paper. Now of course there is a balance, and you always want to be correct, but are we hesitating too much sometimes?

I do not have all of the answers, and the SPJ South Florida chapter does not pretend to, either. But, I think this situation has raised some serious questions for all of us, our chapters, our newsrooms and ourselves to think about:

  • The balance between being first and being accurate.
    -We all want to get it correct, but we also want to be first.
  • An individual’s reputation online vs. a news organization’s.
    -Your online presence becomes more than a personal brand for yourself. You become a spokesperson for your news organization. How much control, if any, do they have over what you post? How much control should they have?
  • Is it a form of censorship, or is it about preventing confusion?
    -Can a news organization ask for you not to publish something under your personal name until they publish under their name? Is that just common courtesy?
  • Does SPJ (and news organizations) need to take a more relevant and aggressive approach when situations like the Red and Black at UGA occur?
    -Is it taking too long to gather facts and vet a statement that it becomes irrelevant?

Your thoughts:
Let us know what you think. What could SPJ and news organizations be doing differently when it comes to how information is published?

Lynn Walsh is a member of the SPJ South Florida board and is also the Chairwoman of the SPJ Generation J committee. You can follow her on Twitter: @LWalsh or e-mail her:

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