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Society of Professional Journalists’ FIU chapter launches media conference

Lori Todd, social media manager for the Orlando Sentinel and Sun Sentinel, and Associate Dean Allan Richards listen as Miami Herald Caribbean correspondent, Jacqueline Charles, speaks at the social media panel at Listen Learn Connect, the media conference organized SPJ-FIU on March 21, 2014. Photo by JEFFREY PIERRE / South Florida News Service




By Marisol Medina

South Florida News Service

Once upon a time, there was a lonely SPJ chapter at Florida International University.  SPJ-FIU wasn’t short of members, but it wanted to reach out to other SPJ chapters across Florida, and perhaps the country.  So the members began thinking of an event, free of charge, which would gather all chapters as well as anyone with an interest in journalism.

“Listen, Learn and Connect: SPJ-FIU Media Conference” was born, named after its purpose.

The idea was to educate journalists and journalism students on current issues of the field. The chapter organized five panels: Social Media, Photojournalism, Journalism Ethics, War Reporting and How to Brand Yourself, with a total of nine panelists, all experts in their beat.

The first LLC was held at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus on March 21 with journalism enthusiasts, faculty members and the Florida Atlantic University chapter as special guests.  About 85 people enjoyed a day full of journalism, a little bit of poker and some delicious pasta.

SJMC Associate Dean Allan Richards introduced the conference and moderated the first panel: Social Media.

Lori Todd, social media manager at the Orlando Sentinel and the Sun-Sentinel, and Jacqueline Charles, the Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald, were the headliners for our first panel.

Charles is a social media star. With more than 22,000 Twitter followers, she discovered the power and usefulness of social media by covering Haiti. In 2010, while covering the earthquake, all phone lines were down and Twitter was the only way she was able to document the chaos.

She sent her updates to the newsroom in Miami through text messages and someone there compiled them into a story. In the moments immediately following the earthquake, pictures uploaded by users gave her an idea of the scope of the damage.

With such a powerful tool, Charles emphasized that social media is not an exception and that classic journalism principles still apply.

“I treat Twitter very professionally,” she said.  “Anything you tweet has to be confirmed.”

She said she is careful when tweeting and always makes sure the information is accurate, even when retweeting.

“Always look at the source,” she said. “Is it a reliable source?”

Both panelists agreed it was hard learning proper social media etiquette. Charles knew very little about Twitter before the earthquake, and Todd said she learned all about social media on her own.

“I didn’t have classes about Twitter or Facebook in college,” said Todd.  “They barely existed back then.”

Charles said she has not been exempt of her “oops” moments, but she always corrects the information by sending a “correction” to her previous tweet, as mainstream newspapers would do.

“If you delete it, someone might have retweeted you already,” she said. “Social media is the Internet.  It stays out there.”

From carefulness, the conversation shifted to the topic of privacy.

“There should no expectation of privacy on social media,” said Todd, who manages anything related to social media for the two Sentinels and trains reporters on how to make the best use of their social media accounts.

Todd concluded by saying there are three things everybody should do when getting started on social media.

“You should be listening,” she said, meaning following diverse sources to get both sides of a story. “You should be promoting your stories and learning from other people in social media.”


Al Diaz and Patrick Farrell, both photojournalists for the Miami Herald, were the speakers for our photojournalism panel.  Professor Lorna Veraldi was the moderator.

Diaz, who recently moved people in Miami with his photographs of a baby having difficulty breathing on a major expressway, began by showing the pictures.

He was driving on the expressway when a woman in front of him stopped and got out, holding the baby turning blue.

As the woman frantically called for help, Diaz held back from taking pictures.

“I didn’t want to cause more stress,” he said.

While they waited for help, the baby started breathing again, so Diaz took out his camera and started shooting what he thought was the aftermath of a shocking event.

But the baby started turning blue again, and the woman tried giving him CPR.

“He stopped breathing again,” Diaz said.

That’s when he took the emotional shot of the desperate woman trying to get her nephew to breathe.

Diaz said the woman was initially annoyed at him for taking pictures, but he could see the picture he’d snapped had potential to educate people on the need to learn CPR to save a life.

Farrell also knows the power of photographs first hand.  In 2009, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of hurricane Ike in Haiti.

“It was like Armageddon,” he said, after showing a video about his coverage that made some in the audience tear up. “[It was] the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

Both panelists said it is difficult shooting devastating events. Farrell recounted the story of a man who held his dead daughter in his arms and washed her up looking for a dress to bury her with. He asked him to take a picture in honor of her memory.

Journalism Ethics:

A hot debate took place during this panel, directed by Michael Koretzky, SPJ Region 3 director, Juliet Pinto, associate professor of journalism at FIU, and Fred Blevens, also a professor of journalism at FIU.

While discussing SPJ’s code of ethics, Blevens asked the audience what would make a journalist certified, and if a certification was even needed.

Some of the members of the audience proposed forming a guild, similar to a writers’ and actor’s guild that would rate journalists on their reliability.

Koretzky challenged the students to form the guild to license journalists.

“I would love to see you guys have that discussion to see what happens,” he said. “It would be awesome because no one’s done that before.”

Koretzky also introduced attendees to “ethical poker”, where he played cards that included SPJ’s Code of Ethics printed on the face of each card.

Students crowded around the poker table while Koretzky explained the rules of “Ethics Hold ’em” and how they could score 100 chips if they matched lines from the code during a round.

Pinto concluded by saying that technology has modified codes of ethics, and that the current generation of journalists would influence those changes.

“You are the digital natives,” she said. “You have grown up in this atmosphere and you have different ideas of what journalism is, what it should be and where it’s going.”

One of Blevens’ main concerns with such changes is that said society is currently getting further away from a main journalistic principle, which is truth telling.

“As long as you, as practicing journalists, are biased toward your audience, and to no one else, you will sail a clear course,” he said.

War Reporting and Journalists’ Safety:

Carmen Gentile, freelance war correspondent injured in Afghanistan in 2010 and Larry Doyle, senior producer of international news with a freelance contract to CBS, directed this talk about the perils of foreign corresponding.  Professor Lilliam Martinez-Bustos moderated it.

Gentile knows the dangers of reporting from a war firsthand.  He was shot near his eye with an RPG – a Rocket Propelling Grenade — that, against all odds, did not detonate.  He lost partial vision on his right eye and suffered a long recovery.

But as soon as he could, Gentile was back in Afghanistan.

When asked if he considered reporting from a newsroom after his accident, Gentile said he never did.

“I hate sitting in a office,” he said. “I’d much rather do what I do.”

Doyle, who covered the war in El Salvador in his early years as a reporter, said reporting from war zones is not easy.

“It’s a very seductive life. It’s a very interesting life, and it will get you killed,” he said, adding that anyone with an interest in becoming a foreign correspondent should read a lot, learn a foreign language that would be useful in the place being covered and learn about the culture.

Gentile said the best way to do that was to live abroad.

“There’s no better way to learn a culture and what the rest of the world is like than being there,” he said.

At the beginning of the panel, Doyle shared some numbers with the audience: 71, 39, 826, 87, 37. After establishing they were not the lucky lotto numbers, he explained what the numbers meant.

“71 journalists killed, one every five days, 39 citizen journalists killed, 826 arrested, 87 kidnapped and 37 still missing,” he said, about the figures of 2013 published by Reporters Without Borders. “That’s the kind of job you’re getting into, if you want to cover conflict.”

He said it would be good for a starting foreign correspondent to learn a few phrases.

“One phrase not to use is, ‘I’m an American,’” he joked.

How to Brand Yourself:

Steve Rothaus, LGBT writer for the Miami Herald, and Michael Koretzky, led this panel on the best ways for a journalist to market him or herself.  I moderated it.

Rothaus told the audience how his initiative in building a blog about gay issues, and branding it with his own name, allowed him to keep his job during the recession.

“I started at the Miami Herald listening to police monitors, but I had my foot in the door,” he said.

Being openly gay, Rothaus said he faced resistance writing and reporting on LGBT issues in South Florida.  But that beat was his branding.

“It’s ok to be engaged,” he said, addressing that being gay made him more qualified than most to report on LGBT issues and topics. “Being engaged in your community is not a bad thing.”

Rothaus said one can still be a creditable, trusted and respected journalist while simultaneously being plugged into a certain community.

“I know a lot of people, and they know me for being a gay reporter with the Miami Herald,” he said. “That in no way impacts my credibility. My job is to provide a voice to people who have traditionally underrepresented.”

In a private interview with SPJ-FIU reporters, Rothaus said branding, much like engaging in your community, is something that students shouldn’t be afraid of. “It’s good to be the best source of information for your readership,” he said.

Michael Koretzky told students to choose words carefully on a resume.  He said the word “freelance” looks more attractive than “internship”, for instance.

“All I know from you doing an internship is that you got a lot of coffee for your bosses,” he said.  “A freelance job means you had a professional relationship, you did your work and got paid for it.”

He also offered to hold mock job interviews after the panel, since he feels many young journalists are terrible at job interviews.

Looking forward:

After a day of five panels, tears, laughs and a lot of learning, SPJ at FIU is proud to deem the first LLC a success. The collaboration put into the event was massive: students, faculty and other SPJ chapters, all contributed to making LLC a real learning and connecting experience.  Special thanks to Dean Raul Reis and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication for helping in sponsoring the event. SPJ-FIU is looking forward to planning next year’s conference and for LLC to become a gathering place of SPJ chapters across the state, and country.

Jeffrey Pierre and Katie Lepri contributed to this article.

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