14 Sep After Red & Black flap, looking back, moving forward
The recent public disagreement between SPJ President John Ensslin and Region 3 Director Michael Koretzy over how SPJ should have responded to The Red and Black controversy reminds me of a case several years ago at a college involving another student newspaper.
The situations were very different. But the findings about SPJ’s response in the prior situation are fodder for a conversation about how controversies should be handled by SPJ in the future.
In December 2005, as Region 1 Director I was asked to organize a fact-finding task force to investigate the ouster of Karen Bosley, the student newspaper adviser at Ocean County College in New Jersey.
The group, led by my former Stony Brook University journalism professor, Paul Schreiber, in similar fashion to The Red & Black response, visited the school. We interviewed the student journalists, Bosley and the administrators involved, including the president.
Our report faulted the college administration for dismissing Bosley and seeking to muffle a voice critical of officials at the school.
But we also faulted SPJ leaders for delivering an unqualified condemnation of the college’s actions without attempting to get its side.
It was an odd situation to be in. We were sent to find facts after the Society and other SPJ members on their own had already come out against the school.
Regarding how SPJ should respond to future controversies, these were our recommendations:
- SPJ should apply basic journalistic standards – providing all sides an opportunity to tell their stories and respond to accusations – before coming out with its own opinion. The fact that SPJ blasted the administration before the task force was established undercut its credibility before it had a chance to start. Shoot first, ask questions later, is not a sound journalistic approach.
- SPJ should establish a clearly articulated process for releasing public comments. No one should be muzzled, for all the free speech reasons we are discussing here, but there is a difference between speaking as an individual and speaking for SPJ. Any “official” pronouncement by SPJ, its officers or members should follow standard journalistic facts of getting both sides first. Anyone speaking as an individual should make that clear.
- This is not to say that task force reports should not come to a clear conclusion and make recommendations. We did and do. Fact-finding makes that possible.
In The Red & Black controversy, it was clear to Ensslin that Koretzy was to report to him first. But not so to Koretzky, as he stated to me by email.
I’m not a smart man. So John needed to tell me straight up: I need you to investigate for me, then turn over all the data and allow me to comment at my leisure.
Of course, if he had said that, I would’ve demurred. If he would’ve offered to pay for my reporter to go to Athens, I’d have declined under those conditions. Why? Because I believe a regional director has a right to comment on a regional matter on his regional blog. As for all the other related issues, I believe I dealt with those on my own blog at www.journoterrorist.com.
In his SPJ blog, Ensslin rightly says no two situations are alike and each requires a custom response.
Ensslin also stated in his blog that “either Michael did not understand his role or I failed to explain it to him.”
Well, perhaps both.
In the end, the disagreement between Ensslin and Koretzky was a misunderstanding among two dedicated SPJ leaders.
What we need in the future is an updated template for a coordinated approach that outlines who does what and when.
Expanding the recommendations of the Ocean County College report, we should:
- Immediately let the public know we are aware of a situation and that we’re on the job.
- Provide ongoing updates about our progress using social media and other tools. (Ensslin recently set up an SPJ Tumblr account to give us a way “to aggregate stories on controversies like the Red and Black in real time.” That’s a good start.)
- Do the reporting that will lead to an official SPJ position.
- State the position as quickly as possible.
This all could take hours. It could take longer, depending on the complexity of the situation. But we get the message out along the way, and we do it together.