Using Helen Thomas incident as journalism teaching tool?

Today in my Journalistic Principles class I am planning to revisit one of the most challenging and distasteful experiences I have had as a member of the Society of Professional Journalists National Board. Nearly two months ago, the SPJ National Board voted to retire an award named for Veteran White House Correspondent Helen Thomas.

Today in my Journalistic Principles class I am planning to revisit one of the most challenging and distasteful experiences I have had as a member of the Society of Professional Journalists National Board.  Nearly two months ago, the SPJ National Board voted to retire an award named for Veteran White House Correspondent Helen Thomas.

This decision to no longer give The Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award came not without much angst and discussion, first among our Executive Committee and then with the full board.  It was a perfect case of how we must reflect the part of our SPJ Ethics Code which says journalists must MINIMIZE HARM even as we protect the right of an individual to practice the First Amendment.

Thomas  commented to a rabbi on video that Jews in Palestine should “go home.” She drew widespread criticism after the video was posted online, and she later resigned her job as a Hearst Newspapers columnist. The SPJ’s executive committee considered removing Thomas’ name during a July 2010 meeting but did not, noting it was a one-time, spontaneous remark for which she apologized.

In December, Thomas reiterated her previous comments before a speech in Dearborn, Mich., the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News reported. The News quoted her at the time as saying, “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists. No question.”

The practical issue for the Board was related to the controversy’s impact on the award and the future recipients.   At the same time, we wanted to vehemently protect one’s First Amendment rights, even when speech is controversial.

Today’s class is focused on the link between Journalism and what’s legal and ethical.  The Helen Thomas case provides an opportunity to show how Thomas practiced what is legal in exercising her First Amendment Rights.  But, we believe she stumbled ethically in more than one instance where she made offensive comments that don’t suggest she is minimizing harm when covering certain communities.  Of course, we did not as a national board evaluate her reporting.

Furthermore,  another core principle of our Society of Professional Journalists is DIVERSITY.

Thomas’ comments also do not suggest the level of sensitivity that we as journalists should have when covering communities of people from various backgrounds.

So, on a number of levels, there are opportunities to expose a real-life CASE STUDY for students of journalism to learn what’s legal and what’s ethical, while also addressing matters of diversity.

It should be an interesting lesson.   And, I only have about 30 minutes to deliver it today.   We’ll see how it goes.