SPJ Executive Director Speaks on Freedom of the Press

Diversity and ethics are more essential than ever in the media world today. The executive director of the Society for Professional Journalists encourages student journalists to practice good, ethical journalism and fight for their first amendment rights.

Alison Bethel McKenzie is SPJ’s 20th executive director and the second woman to ever be elected. She is also the first minority woman to be named SPJ director. She spoke to students Monday as part of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Communication and Information’s annual Diversity and Inclusion week.

“There’s a difference between not liking journalists and having a respect for press freedom,” McKenzie said. “Look at countries that have muffled the media––wars have broken out, people have been killed…and we don’t want that. So we have to figure out a way to gain back media trust.”

Mckenzie is a strong advocate for journalists all over the United States. She fights for and helps all journalists when they have issues with ethics and first amendment rights.

SPJ is the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization with more than 7,000 members worldwide. The organization represents journalists of every type including reporters, editors, photographers and graphic designers. SPJ’s mission is to protect the first amendment rights of journalists.

That has become more difficult of late.

“…To encourage a climate in which journalism can be practiced freely has become more a challenge in recent history,” McKenzie said.

While this is an exciting time to be a journalist, there are some challenges now that journalist previously did not have to face, according to McKenzie.

“We certainly have to deal with the president of the United States trying to persuade citizens of this country that we are enemies of the people,” McKenzie said.

She recalls a time where the of majority citizens had respect for journalists and when journalism was considered a noble job. She calls all journalists to action, to stand up for their rights and to help gain back citizens’ trust.

“How do we stand up to a president––or anyone else for that matter—who calls us dishonest, lying, disgusting, scum, slime, and says he hates us?” McKenzie asked. “At SPJ, nearly everything we do, every single day, is to improve trust in the media.”

One of the ways SPJ does this is by sending journalists to K-12 classrooms across the country. There, they discuss journalism and its place in society with students, McKenzie explained.

“I can’t think of a better way to improve trust in the media than educating the next generation of news consumers on how journalism works and how to identify good journalism,” she said.

According to the World Press Freedom Index, the U.S. is ranked at 45th in the world. Using that ranking, Reporters Without Borders said the degree of freedom is better in countries one through 44, than it is in the U.S. Some of these countries include: Burkina Faso, Romania, Chile and Surinam, according to McKenzie.

“It is unacceptable that some of these countries, where freedom of information continues to languish on the floor of parliament and where journalists often get regular death threats, have a better track record for press freedom than we have in the United States.”

McKenzie shares instances where she has fought for journalists, not for only their first amendment rights but for their freedom as well.

“I’ve sat in Istanbul, Turkey, and held the hand of a wife of a friend who had been taken away from her and her daughter in the middle of the night,” McKenzie said. “I never thought I would have to fight in my own country, on my own country’s soil, for freedom of the press for journalists. This is the United States of America, and we take press freedom seriously. So seriously that it is enshrined in the U.S. constitution––not the third amendment, not the 14th, not the fifth, the first amendment.”

Journalists must now worry about the possibility of being attacked by people. These days there is a real possibility that journalists might be arrested while covering a story and, McKenzie said, that it is unacceptable.

McKenzie believes that journalists can change the opinion of most Americans by continuing to tell stories and explain why both those in the U.S. and around the world  should seek out and support good journalism.

“We can earn their trust again,” McKenzie said. “But we must remember that with trust, comes responsibility. We must check our sources as journalists. Check out facts. Include diversity of voices in our stories. Minimize harm. Earn the trust of the public.”

Journalists show that they are trustworthy by sharing that they follow a code of ethics, according to McKenzie. SPJ is an organization that successfully follows a strict code of ethics.

“It is a lighthouse in both story and calm waters,” McKenzie said. “The more we use and follow it, the more we educate others about it. The more trust we will earn.”

Freedom of the press is crucial, but McKenzie said she also feels strongly about diversity in the media including race, gender and religion.

“While the U.S. population is nearly 40 percent non-white and growing, some 83 percent of the country’s newsrooms are white,” McKenzie said.

The American Society of News Editors pledged to achieve more diversity in newsroom by the year 2000, but has since missed that goal and pushed it to the year 2025 she said.

Although newsrooms were making progress in diversity and inclusion, the economy collapsed and layoffs pushed them back. McKenzie said that the last hired were often the first fired. This stunted the growth in not only the job force but also the diversity of the teams.

“…Matters were complicated by shrinking newsrooms and the face of increased competition from the world wide web,” Mckenzie said. “Diversity is crucial because the media can help improve the public’s understanding of diverse culture and religion.”

Diversity in the newsroom is important because it ensures that all stories are told and it also helps keep stereotypes to a minimum.

“It’s important, because it’s just good business,” McKenzie said. “At SPJ, we value diversity and we are working every day toward a more diverse organization, a more diverse staff at headquarters and a more diverse profession.”

SPJ also supports student journalism in the US. Many schools across the U.S. have closed their school newspapers because the administration did not like what was being printed, according to Mckenzie.

“Student press will live on though, no matter where you get your funding,” McKenzie said, “because of the hustle that student journalists have.”

SPJ has the backs of student journalists and works with legislators across the country to ensure that schools have newspapers.

“It takes all of us to raise our voices and let those in power know that we will not tolerate claims of fake news or the bullying or arrests of more journalists,” McKenzie said.

Mckenzie closed her lecture by further honing her point of fighting for press freedom in the U.S.

“Journalism isn’t perfect. It’s not all great; it’s not all life changing,” McKenzie said. “Journalists are human and we make mistakes; but, even with its flaws, it is the best way I know how to ensure that this country operates as our founding fathers intended it to.”

She ended her talk with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

SPJ believes in the freedom of the press. It believes in the first amendment. It will not stop reporting the truth to the American people.

“I am so excited,” McKenzie said, “to be fighting this fight with you.”

By Chelsea Babin

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