By Nerissa Young
Project Watchdog Chairwoman
Yes, each SPJ chapter is required to stage a Project Watchdog meeting every year to invite the public in for a discussion about the role of a free and ethical news media in our democratic society.
It doesn’t have to be elaborate, expensive, or time-consuming. The basic ingredients are: host chapter, location, topic, advance publicity, and the public.
As a former chapter president, I know how difficult it is to come up with fresh ideas. Here are a few you may consider or that might jog a fresh idea from your own circumstances:
-- Reverse press conference. Invite newsmakers to grill the journalists. A fun time to do this is during the legislative session when everybody is in town and in a mood to whack journalists. Get a hotel meeting room, add dinner or a cash bar to the menu, and line up the victims.
-- You be the editor. Invite the public, and stage a mock budget meeting. Divide the audience into small groups and let them make decisions on which stories or photos to use and where to place them. The Seattle national convention had a great session in which audience members decided from a group of photos what they thought the “icon” photo of the World Trade Center attacks should be.
-- Our chapter hosted a successful session on a college campus about hillbilly stereotypes in the news media. It was standing room only in one of the journalism school’s classrooms. One audience member, a medical student, read a tremendous poem about unity among humanity that provided a memorable close to the session.
-- Religion and the media. This topic is always a winner. Religious leaders discuss the good and bad about coverage of religious issues and the religion community. The key is inviting pastors and leaders from diverse religious communities.
-- Choose a hot topic. Every news media outlet regularly gets criticized for its handling of a particular story. Invite the players to discuss how and why they covered the story the way they did.
The final, and most important, ingredient is audience questions. A dialogue isn’t a dialogue unless the other side gets to talk. Leave at least 15 to 20 minutes after a Watchdog meeting for audience questions.
Project Watchdog is a grassroots effort. You best know your community and what topics would make good programs. If 25 or 50 people attend, that’s 25 or 50 people who better understand how and why journalists do their job. Who knows? The journalists may learn something about how to better do their jobs.
People tolerate the bark of a dog they know better than one they don’t. That’s why staging a Watchdog meeting is good for the Society, your chapter and your community.
Now, grab that Rolodex, and get started.