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Regions 5 & 7 - St. Louis, Mo. April 7-9, 2000
SPJ Regional Conference
change happens

 

The Pulitzer Platform: What It Means and Why It Matters

By Margaret Wolf Freivogel

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Senior Editor/Sports and Features

Most of you will recognize the name Joseph Pulitzer because of the Pulitzer prizes. But at the Post-Dispatch, we know Joseph Pulitzer because he was our founder. And for a long time -- until 1986, in fact -- no one was editor or publisher of this paper unless he was named Joseph Pulitzer. There were three of them in fact.

This birthday cake is in honor of the first Joseph Pulitzer, who was born 153 years ago this month in Hungary. He came to this country without money or connections. I'm not even sure if he knew English. And by the time he died he was recognized as one of the most brilliant thinkers and influential people of his age. Along the way, he created this paper and the New York World. He also transformed journalism in general into a powerful force for public good. There were a few bumps along the road, by the way -- yellow journalism and the Spanish-American War, for example.

Well into his career, Joseph Pulitzer repented of the extremes of yellow journalism. He actually burned the giant wooden letters that had been used to set some of the sensationalistic headlines into type. And when he was retiring, he wrote something that has stood as a beacon for journalists ever since. That is the Post-Dispatch Platform, which you saw in our lobby and which we print on our editorial page every day.

It goes like this:

"I know that my retirement will make no difference in its cardinal principles, that it will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demogogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty."

These words may sound a little archaic to 21st century ears. But if you think about them carefully, you'll find within them a clarity of purpose and a dedication to principle that is as inspiring as it is demanding. This is no warm, fuzzy mission statement. This is a tough task master calling us to a lifetime commitment. He's giving us a goal that we
can always strive for but never really reach. More often than not, this Platform will lead you right into the teeth of controversy. Yet it seems to comprehend that the most serious threat to journalism is not controversy but indifference.

The challenge of these 82 words is as relevant today as it was in 1907. Joseph Pulitzer calls us to stand up for the underdog, the outcast, the unconventional idea and to fight for progress. He calls us to stand apart from party, privilege or special interest -- to challenge conventional wisdom and group think. That's what drastic independence is all about. And he calls us to stand firm -- to ask the tough questions, to insist on looking beyond the surface level of events and to pursue the deeper meaning and significance of the news. That's what "never be satisfied with merely printing news" means.

And so as you enjoy cake today in honor of Joseph Pulitzer's birthday, I invite you to accept this present -- this vision -- from him. The topic of today's conference is change. Joseph Pulitzer's Platform calls for change. But it is also a touchstone against which you can measure the changes now underway in journalism and in the world. I urge you to do that -- to temper the impulses of the moment with the wisdom of experience. And when you hear the name Pulitzer -- on Monday and in the future -- I hope you'll remember not only the prizes but the Platform as well.

--30--

 

Gannett Executive Explains Push for Ethical Credibility

By Carl Green

Rising distrust of the media led Gannett to establish a five-point ethical statement that all editorial employees must embrace, the company's director of reader credibility told nearly 200 journalists and journalism students meeting in St. Louis Saturday morning.

Kathy Kozdemba, director of NEWS/2000, cited studies by the Freedom Forum, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Pew Trust showing that the public distrusts and dislikes the media. A Freedom Forum poll showed that 88 percent of the public thought the media uses illegal or unethical methods to obtain stories, Kozdemba said. An ASNE poll showed that 80 percent of the public believes the media sensationalizes the news, she said.

"Clearly, our First Amendment freedoms are at risk," Kozdemba told participants in "Change Happens," a combined regional conference of the Society of Professional Journalists held this weekend at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Conference Center.

Gannett wanted to let the public know they practice good journalism, Kozdemba said. Its newspaper division's Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms was developed in brainstorming sessions that drew on staffers, executives and outsiders.

The principles state that Gannett newspapers are committed to:

  • Seeking and reporting the truth in a truthful way.
  • Serving the public interest.
  • Exercising fair play.
  • Maintaining independence.
  • Acting with integrity.

Kozdemba said that 5,000 Gannett employees have participated in ethics training, and that employee response has been universally positive. Employees are required to sign off on the ethics principles yearly. Feedback from the public has been mixed.

"Some say, 'It's about time' while some are skeptical that any real change will occur," Kozdemba said. One letter writer said, "thank you for finally admitting the press has been unethical," Kozdemba said.

One member of the audience asked Kozdemba how Gannett would react if it received government documents that it was not authorized to receive. Al Cross, a political reporter at Gannett's Courier-Journal in Louisville, replied that if the documents were genuine, newsworthy, and accurate, journalists "have an ethical responsibility" to report on them. But Cross said newspapers should not encourage anyone to break the law.

Kozdemba added that the motives of the person supplying the documents should also be evaluated. Kozdemba said she hoped that the Gannett program would help turn around public perceptions of the media. She said she was optimistic about the print media, but pessimistic about the broadcast media's ability to give up its "sweeps mentality" and embrace new guidelines of ethical conduct.
One member of the audience cited the number of movies that portray reporters as an aggressive, unpolite pack.

Kozdemba agreed such movies affect the public's perceptions, and said she hoped someone would make a good movie about the media. "But then I heard someone was producing a movie on Janet Cooke," she said, rolling her eyes.

--30--

 

 

 





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The Society of Professional Journalists is the nation's largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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