Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Dilemma Facing Today's Journalism Associations

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Dilemma Facing Today's Journalism Associations

Article excerpt

WHAT IS THE role of a journalism association?

Does it exist primarily as a networking body whose members meet to discuss workplace concerns and First Amendment issues?

Or does it have a larger role in taking public positions on social or political issues in which the organization's membership may have an interest?

The tax-exempt status of many journalism associations precludes involvement in political activity. That's just as well, some say.

To avoid undermining their objectivity and credibility, reporters and editors are discouraged from participating in political demonstrations or rallies. Similarly, the argument goes, journalism groups comprised of editorial professionals should refrain from making organizational decisions based on political or non-workplace issues.

"In order for a journalism association -- regardless of whom it represents -- to maintain its impartiality as a journalism organization, it has to walk a very rigid line on what public policy issues it takes, outside of the First Amendment," believes Reggie Stuart, president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).

"That's a lot different than individuals in an organization taking a position, and doesn't mean that we shouldn't discuss issues of importance within our organizations," Stuart added.

If journalists are doing their jobs effectively by writing about controversial issues, there are plenty of social policy organizations that will take up the task of lobbying for change, Stuart reasons.

But when members of an association feel threatened by a particular piece of legislation, for example, it's hard not to become involved.

That's why the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) urged the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) to boycott Colorado as a 1993 convention site when voters in the state passed anti-gay legislation, said Leroy Aarons, president of the NLGJA. "There is no way to be eternally pure on this," Aarons believes. "Sometimes decisions are made on a moral basis."

"I don't think we can say 'we're journalists -- we don't stand for anything," agreed Gilbert Bailon, president of the NAHJ. "We face a dual charge. We are professionals and we are also Hispanics."

Workplace issues and political legislation also were intermingled when the board of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) voted against holding any national conferences in California because of the state's antiaffirmative action policies.

"Our organization has never been focused on the First Amendment only," said NABJ president Dorothy Gilliam.

That acknowledgement, along with the fact that NABJ has taken past positions on political issues, raised some eyebrows in journalism circles when the NABJ board announced in June that it would not take a position in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an African-American journalist.

By now, the situation is familiar to almost everyone. In 1981, when he was arrested for killing a Philadelphia policeman, Abu-Jamal was president of NABJ's Philadelphia chapter. …

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