A letter to our members

To our members,

We are writing to share our concerns about some of the sponsors at the Excellence in Journalism Conference in September.

We, the Chicago Headline Club board, believe accepting donations from groups trying to advance a political agenda is a breach of the SPJ Code of Ethics, which clearly states journalists should avoid conflicts of interest — real or perceived.

The Charles Koch Institute, for example, is part of a secretive and complex family of groups whose goal is to advance the Koch brothers’ political ideologies. The groups include Americans for Prosperity, Generation Opportunity and Koch Industries, which has used aggressive tactics against journalists trying to unveil their activities.

In Illinois, Koch brothers fund conservative groups like Think Freely Media and the Illinois Policy Institute. The institute, which has been mired in controversy, funded Project Six, a group that billed itself as nonpartisan journalism but shut down following a ProPublica Illinois investigation that exposed its political ties.

We raised these concerns with SPJ in Mid-August and asked SPJ to refund the Koch Institute donation, which SPJ says is $25,000. We also asked for SPJ to review its books and refund other donations from political groups, and to create a policy against donations from them.

SPJ responded to our concerns in a letter on August 21, where SPJ Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said SPJ could not, at this late hour, break with the Koch Institute, which is planning and sponsoring a FOIA panel. However, McKenzie said SPJ is establishing a task force to tackle a sponsorship policy.

“What headquarters will do is try and work with Koch to ensure a balanced panel; already they have contacted at least one SPJ member to sit on the FOIA session,” McKenzie wrote.

McKenzie said SPJ considered it hypocritical for an organization that supports the First Amendment to reject a “committed sponsor for their ideology.” Also, SPJ “did not want to strain or break its relationship with RTDNA (Radio Television Digital News Association), which voted unanimously to accept the Koch Foundation sponsorship.”

We think SPJ’s logic is misguided. It’s not a free speech issue to exclude entities who have been documented to work daily and with great funds to destroy public faith in independent journalism.

Let us be clear: SPJ should not take money from any group pushing a political agenda — regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.

Other questionable sponsors include Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has required its anchors to read promotional statements and has injected political commentary into its local broadcasts. And SPJ said it could receive concerns about its acceptance of funds from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which makes policy recommendations and advocates for safety-net programs.

By allowing political groups to sponsor events at our gatherings recognizing free and unbiased journalism, we are legitimizing them and are giving them a platform to influence our members. Do we also let these groups submit the content they label as journalism into our awards? Where do we draw the line?

We must protect the integrity of our profession and take a hard look at our actions and decide now what the future will look like for our organization and share that vision with SPJ members.

We ask that you voice your opinion with SPJ leadership or with us at president@headlineclub.org.

The Chicago Headline Club board

Editor’s note: Alison Bethel McKenzie’s title was incorrectly stated in an email to our members. She is SPJ’s Executive Director.

SPJ said it has not received concerns about the Annie E. Casey Foundation as earlier stated in a message to our members. Here is what SPJ said: “We are ardent supporters of the First Amendment. It would be hypocritical and in bad taste for us to reject a committed sponsor for their ideology, especially in this divided climate, where conservative outlets feel under attack. Whatever inroads were made last week with the editorial supporting press freedom would be washed away as conservatives howl about us nixing Koch while allowing Annie Casey.”