SPJ national president speaks at Virginia Pro chapter

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By Kristine Hadeed

Broadcast Journalism Senior, Virginia Commonwealth University

April 14, 2012

Brian Eckert, Region 2 director of the Society of Professional Journalists, estimated it was the first visit of its kind in over 30 years.

National SPJ president John Ensslin made an appearance as guest speaker at Saturday’s Virginia Pro Chapter meeting, held on the University of Richmond’s campus.

Before Saturday night, Eckert says the last president to visit the Virginia Pro Chapter was Alf Goodykoontz, a former executive editor at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who headed SPJ’s national organization from 1977-1978.

Ensslin made the trip to Virginia from his home in New Jersey at the invitation of chapter president Paul Fletcher. The national president’s talk focused on ethics, but also touched on ideas to expand SPJ’s membership internationally.

Ensslin commented on the influence SPJ’s Code of Ethics has on practices of journalism in the United States. “It is not law;” he said, “and it has much more power as a result.”  

The system of peer-enforced accountability that SPJ’s ethics code promotes is one that Ensslin said he would like to see more journalists adopt “beyond the borders of this country.”

“We are an organization that values diversity, and I would like to see us grow in that direction,” he said.

However, he also noted concerns about advocating SPJ’s ethical doctrines in countries that do not enjoy as extensive rights to freedom of speech as those offered in the U.S.

“Part of SPJ’s code says that journalists should act independently, but not all journalists have that independence,” Ensslin said, citing Iran as an example of a country where one must carry a license in order to practice journalism. He welcomed thoughts and opinions on that topic as he and other members of SPJ’s national board develop plans to expand the organization’s membership, both domestically and abroad.

Following Ensslin’s talk, Virginia Pro Chapter members watched a screening of the award-winning documentary, “Page One: Inside the New York Times.” The film follows journalists working at the iconic paper’s Media Desk and sheds light on how new technologies have affected practices and perceptions of  one of journalism’s oldest and most influential institutions.

Ensslin said the opening scene of “Page One,” which shows the closing of the Rocky Mountain newspaper, hits close to home for him.

“That was my newspaper, and my editor up on the screen,” he said. “I remember that day; it stabs me right here every time I see it.”  Ensslin is currently a reporter covering local government for The Record, a newspaper in  Bergen, N.J.

For young journalists looking to become viable in an evolving media landscape, Ensslin advised that the training, professional support and camaraderie gained by joining SPJ’s network gives students and professionals alike an advantage in their careers.

“When a newspaper editor gets an application from someone who’s joined SPJ […], that signals that this is a person who’s serious about journalism,” said Ensslin. “If you’re not going to invest in yourself, who will?”

[Photo by Pat Kane][p>