TheDC analysis: Why I’m not renewing my SPJ membership next year

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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When I reported that the Diversity Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists was launching a campaign against using the term “illegal immigrant,” I was disappointed that the role models I looked up to as a 23-year-old reporter were advocating a political position, and using their power of the press to do it.

Journalism is supposed to be about telling the truth. In its code of ethics, SPJ pushes for journalists to “seek truth and report it.” SPJ also says journalists should balance seeking truth with “minimizing harm,” though, and that’s where journalists with liberal beliefs, at least in some circles, go wrong. The “minimize harm” clause is supposed to be “balanced” with the “seek truth and report it” clause of SPJ’s code of ethics, but journalists often will make a case for weakening truth to minimize harm.

The SPJ Diversity Committee member I talked to when reporting that story, Leo Laurence, used the Constitution as the basis for SPJ’s argument for shifting from “illegal immigrant” to “undocumented worker.” Laurence said the Constitution says only a judge can deem somebody or something illegal, which is only partially true.

He’s right in that the government can’t constitutionally hold someone against their will “to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury,” per the Fifth Amendment. That doesn’t mean, though, that people who illegally entered this country can’t be defined correctly in the media.

Where Laurence has more of a case is in the Fourteenth Amendment, which says that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Still, he’s not 100 percent correct, because the language of the Fourteenth Amendment is referring to “states,” as in the 50 states, not “the state,” as in the federal government. The amendment gives the federal government and the Constitution authority over the laws and constitutions of the individual states.

Currently, the Fourteenth Amendment is under fire politically as conservatives push for its repeal or revision so it so it can’t be read to allow a loophole for illegal immigrants. Using a contested political interpretation of an amendment that’s currently under fire as a means for your argument isn’t fair, balanced, objective or responsible journalism. It’s journalistic malpractice, and it’s sad that my colleagues have sunk this low to further their political agenda. They twisted the semantics of their argument, of those who oppose them and of the Constitution, all in an effort to “minimize harm.”

What harm are they minimizing? The harm illegal immigrants might suffer from being described as illegal immigrants?

Laurence told me those critical of his recommendations were racists, implying that all illegal immigrants were of Latino or Latina descent. That’s not true. In fact, the statistics of the race of illegal immigrants don’t exist because the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t tabulate those statistics.

Laurence said that all Latino and Latina people think the term illegal immigrant is offensive, regardless of their citizenship status. That’s not true either. I had several Latino and Latina people who went through the proper immigration channels e-mail me earlier this week telling me they think what SPJ is pushing is offensive to them.

Since I wrote that story, the Diversity Committee of SPJ and the organization as a whole has distanced itself from Laurence, saying that recommendation is solely his opinion, and “does not reflect the views of SPJ, its membership or its Diversity Committee.” But, how can they explain the Diversity Committee Chairman George Daniels’s comments in Laurence’s “column?” The chairman of that committee called for the same things Laurence did and SPJ as a whole was going to listen to the Diversity Committee’s recommendations at 2011’s national convention to vote on whether to take up the cause as a whole.

Laurence quotes Daniels as saying SPJ should, “engage in a yearlong education campaign designed to inform and sensitize journalists to the best language when writing and reporting on persons from different cultures and backgrounds.” That clearly backs up SPJ saying it, its members and the Diversity Committee had not made these recommendations at all, right? No, but that’s how they’re trying to back out of it after I caught them with both hands, elbow-deep, in the cookie jar.

I’m disappointed that SPJ has taken a political stance on this issue. Laurence said this campaign isn’t political in nature, but also said any political or immigration policy side effects would be purely coincidental. Laurence said that’s because the campaign is aimed at journalists, not the general public. But, doesn’t he realize that it’s what we write and report that the general public reads and trusts is true? Does that mean a representative of a supposedly impartial and objective journalistic organization doesn’t think it matters how his and others’ journalism affects the way the public thinks or how it affects federal policy?

I asked conservative columnist and media personality Michelle Malkin if she thought SPJ’s campaign against the term illegal immigrant was political in nature – she answered that, absolutely, yes, it was a political fight, and language war.

“There’s been such a blurring of lines between political activists and so many of these mainstream newsrooms that it’s a lost cause to depend on these papers to report objectively on the subject of immigration or border security,” Malkin said.

Malkin said she wasn’t surprised by the lefty, self-righteous tendencies of SPJ, either, or that the group’s decision-makers don’t even realize that they’re biased. That’s how far off these “journalists” are – they think they’re objective and fair.

“I think it serves this ideological agenda of drumming up enormous amounts of sympathy for the illegal alien population and they want to break down barriers to get their political policy agenda through,” Malkin said. “The language battle is really a proxy for a political battle that this journalistic organization wants to wage without being responsible for it because, if they acknowledge that they’re responsible for fighting a political battle, then they cede any illusion of being a neutral news organization.”

The reason I joined SPJ in college (as an undergraduate; I’m in grad school now) was to further my journalistic career. The group provided forums to meet with hiring editors at newspapers and television stations around the country, and held conferences to discuss journalistic issues. I attended several of these, and greatly benefited from them, having met many of the people I now know in the industry at them.

But, those benefits will never outweigh the embarrassing bias SPJ is showing off with this campaign. It’s sad to me that, ethically, I cannot renew my SPJ membership next year. I can’t support or be a part of an organization that says it’s objective and promotes responsible journalism, but partakes in political advocacy.