Response from AEJMC President, Carol J. Pardun

Jun. 11, 2010 | On Monday, June 7th, the President’s Advisory Council (PAC) and I sent a statement to the AEJMC membership. Within hours, the blogosphere was alive with comments concerning our statement. Many of the responses were against the statement. While we certainly expected criticism, we were stymied by the volume, tone, and accusations. As members of AEJMC, the PAC and I are staunch advocates for journalism and mass communication and do not represent any political entity or side. It was not our intention to categorize Obama’s presidency as a failure or to offend anyone by insensitivity in the statement. In fact, it grieves me to think that we may have given that impression to any AEJMC member, let alone an entire division or commission.

The PAC and I present the following as background on how we arrived at the statement released on June 7 along with some analysis about ways we think the process can be improved:

At the 2009 conference in Boston, the AEJMC membership approved the formation of a President’s Advisory Council. The PAC grew out of an initiative in AEJMC’s Strategic Plan, approved by the membership during the 2008 meeting in Chicago, to strengthen the organization’s identity, image and influence.

As explained at the Boston meeting, the PAC assists the AEJMC president “to weigh in on important issues that are central to the association’s mission.” The three-member subcommittee of the Standing Committee of Professional Freedom and Responsibility, elected by the AEJMC membership, is responsible for taking ideas from members to the president and advising the president on how to proceed. Committee membership rotates each year.

All statements by the PAC are released to the membership and posted on the AEJMC website. The PAC issued its first statement in October, and has since released three other statements. All statements have addressed issues central to AEJMC’s mission – which includes “supporting freedom of communication consonant with the ideal expressed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

The PAC’s most recent statement – issued June 7, 2010, and addressing issues similar to those in earlier statements – has hit a nerve with many AEJMC members. We appreciate the “uninhibited, robust and wide-open” debate this statement has prompted about the issue we addressed (journalists’ access to the president in open, full press conferences) and about the statement itself.

The fact that members might have substantive differences with any statement issued by AEJMC is not surprising; no single statement issued by an organization as large and diverse as ours will meet with approval from all members.

We do want to address concerns by some members about the motives and process behind our most recent statement (“Obama’s Promised…”). Concerns seem to center on three major themes:

  • The appropriateness of the statement in light of other issues. Throughout this first year for the PAC, a number of issues have been proposed for statements. The PAC generally discusses these issues in terms of their potential scope, impact and timeliness. Some issues, for instance, do not merit statements because they may be so local in focus as to lack relevance to a wider context. Others may have potential for wide impact but do not result in statements because they are resolved quickly (such as a legislative vote or administrative decision involving a public institution). Another consideration is the potential for action: Can a positive outcome result from a statement? (For instance, is a decision pending? Or, might public officials consider changing their communication practices?) This last point might be a reason the PAC chooses not to issue a statement about the political bias of a cable news network.

The PAC chose to address the issue involving the current White House administration and its relationship with journalists because, in the PAC’s estimation, the issue met the above-mentioned criteria. The PAC invites discussion and suggestions about how to more finely tune the general criteria it uses to judge topics for statements in light of the organization’s mission statement.

  • The accuracy of the statement. Several AEJMC members have publicly disputed the statement’s assertion that the current White House administration needs to be more accessible to the press. This assertion – and any arguments to the contrary — depend on how “accessible” is defined. In their arguments that the statement’s assertions were wrong, members have pointed to the work of scholar Martha Joynt Kumar (Towson University) and to news articles parsing the availability of the current president in relationship to previous administrations.

The PAC understood many of the same sources as supporting the statement’s concern: for the lack of open-ended, full-length press conferences by the president that allow unfettered questions on a variety of issues, and the lack of general, day-to-day access by reporters to the president. The numbers and anecdotal evidence support this assertion.

We acknowledge that our statement could have – and should have been – clearer about its definition of openness, and we’re grateful for the constructive feedback from AEJMC members in this regard. Although the PAC reads and consults with AEJMC members and non-members before issuing any statement, the process to ensure that releases are clear about their intent can and should be improved – and we welcome suggestions. We know the headline has a strong influence on how any statement is read and we now realize that we should insist our reviewers consider the headline to the statement as carefully as they do the statement. From now on, we will make sure that this process occurs in tandem.

  • The sensitivity of the statement. The PAC is open – and, indeed, eager – to understand more about how to avoid wording and/or assertions insensitive to the diverse populations (by gender, race, ability, sexuality and age, for instance) in any of the statements it has issued. Although the PAC has made it a practice of outside consultation before issuing any statement, it has been suggested – and we concur – that it would be wise to put a system into place that ensures consultation considering the diversity of AEJMC’s constituents. There are a number of ways to ensure such consultation.

We welcome input of AEJMC members – either individually or through the organization’s many divisions and interest groups – about the PAC’s work. To those who have provided us with constructive feedback: Thank you. We look forward – with your input – to improving the process as AEJMC implements its strategic plan.

Most of all, thank you for your concern about issues facing us and our profession as we continue to work toward upholding and safeguarding the tenets of the First Amendment.

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