A visit with Chinese journalists

St. Louis SPJ board members and a group of Chinese journalists, media professionals and academics recently met on June 18, to talk about media in the U.S. Chapter President Elizabeth Donald and Vice President Tammy Merrett fielded questions about what SPJ does, its work supporting the First Amendment and involvement in Freedom of Information cases.

The visitors spent six days in the U.S. through the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program, organized by the World Affairs Council of St. Louis. Their goal for the trip was a big one — to examine rights and responsibilities of media, observe operations practices and standards at media organizations and explore consequences of competition in the changing media market.

The 10 visitors and three interpreters asked the SPJ officers about everything from STL SPJ programming, the interaction between national security and the First Amendment, liberal vs. conservative media, political views in journalism, how student media is funded and run, credentialing of journalists and racial diversity and gender equality in SPJ, as well as in media organizations.

There were so many questions that the SPJ representatives were not able to get any of their own questions in about media in China.

“I love these meetups, because we tend to forget in the little microcosms of our newsrooms that there is a whole world out there doing journalism just like we are – but without the freedoms and structures we so often take for granted,” Donald said. “They had so many questions, and we answered them all, but I wish I had kept my eye on the clock so I could remember to ask them some things.”

Discussing political structures was part of the visit with one visitor jumping right in early on to ask about how SPJ views situations like that of Edward Snowden revealing classified information about global surveillance programs run by government and how coverage of that squared with the First Amendment and national security.

Donald referred to the newly updated SPJ Code of Ethics in her response and talked about how the Snowden situation was a tricky one.

They also talked about how SPJ is connected to current events in the area and on the national stage. One of the visitors asked about what sort of events the STL SPJ chapter or SPJ national make official statements about, as well as if the statements represent all of the membership or just the board. He wanted to know if our chapter asks all members what their stance is on an issue before a statement is made.

Donald and Merrett talked about the two most recent official statements that the STL SPJ chapter has issued – both about violent treatment and unlawful detention of journalists covering riots and protests in Ferguson in fall 2014 and after the Stockley verdict in fall 2017. Merrett and Donald, each president at the time of Ferguson and Stockley, respectively, told the visitors that journalists had tear gas canisters dropped at their feet by police in Ferguson and were trapped in police “kettling” tactics in Stockley. Both agreed the active STL SPJ officers at the time of the incidents felt that their chapter had to issue an official statement.

Members of the visiting group were interested in hearing about the various events, programs and training that the STL Pro SPJ chapter hosts and coordinates – in recent years, our annual College Journalism Boot Camp training day; our Ferguson Photojournalists’ Roundtable; and our News At Noon series, in conjunction with the Missouri History Museum, where a broad range of presenters have presented on such topics as using drones in journalism, true crime writing, food writing, photojournalism, coverage of riots and protests and journalism film screenings.

The visitors asked about how independent student media are in the U.S. Merrett explained the general models of funding and business and newsroom structures in student media, as well as how involved administrators should be versus how involved they sometimes are.

How journalists show they are journalists with credentials was asked about as well — How can the public tell the difference between real and “fake” journalists? Donald and Merrett told the group about how there is no license or credentialing agency journalists can get or go through to show they are, in fact, trained journalists. Donald showed them her Belleville News-Democrat identification, but she and Merrett both stressed that anyone can make something like that, and there is no way to prevent those who are not trained journalists from representing themselves as such. Credentials often have to be arranged per event or situation.

Donald also told the group about her credentials that were issued by the Madison County Sheriff’s Department and the process involved.

One of the goals of their visit was to also gain insight into social, economic and political structures in the U.S. while meeting with several other people and groups associated with media in the area — Gateway Media Literacy Partners, faculty and staff at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and KOMU-TV, media educators, as well as a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter and an editor from the St. Louis American.

— Tammy Merrett, STL SPJ Vice President/Treasurer

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