Our Mission to Call Out Threats to the Press

August 15, 2017

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SEJ President's Report: Our Mission to Call Out Threats to the Press

By Bobby Magill

If you've read the news lately, you'll know that press freedoms are eroding quickly.

  • U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced a review of the Justice Department's policy on subpoenaing the press as part of Sessions' crackdown on government leaks.
  • A reporter was arrested for questioning U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
  • Capitol police in Washington attempted to shut down press photographers during the recent health care vote.
  • And President Trump's hostility toward journalists was a major part of his presidential campaign last year.
SEJ President Bobby Magill
President Bobby Magill writes that the need for SEJ to focus on diversity was perhaps the biggest thing to come out of a recent retreat by organization board members.

SEJ has joined a coalition of more than 20 journalism groups fighting back as part of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which uses news reports and leverages the eyes and ears of all these groups' members to report and record any incident in which a reporter has been arrested, searched, attacked or stopped at a border crossing by government officials.

As hostility toward the press seems to be intensifying at all levels of government, joining the Press Freedom Tracker fulfills SEJ's mission to support environmental journalism by calling out threats to reporters and joining coalitions of journalism groups who can raise their collective voice opposing abuses and fervently advocating for government transparency.

Seeking a more diverse SEJ

The SEJ Board of Directors and Executive Director Melisa Klem have been thinking a great deal about SEJ's mission lately as we move to the next step of planning for the next five years. In July, board members gathered for two days in Seattle to brainstorm what we want SEJ to look like in 2020 and beyond —and what we'll need to do to get there.

To oversimplify our work-in-progress vision for the future, SEJ needs to grow and to become a more diverse organization that is financially stable and able to reach and support a broader spectrum of journalists whose work spans all media and reporting beats.

This may seem intuitive to some degree, but accomplishing this vision takes a lot of work and planning, especially as funding sources shift and the media landscape continues to change.

Recognizing the need to focus on diversity was perhaps the biggest thing to come out of the retreat.

Diversity means different things to different people. I see an SEJ with more diverse faces among our members and panelists as more effectively supporting better journalism. Diversity means providing better tools and better ideas for reporting, helping members tell deeper stories about the lives touched by environmental challenges, those finding solutions and those building the power structures that create the problems in the first place.

We're reviving SEJ’s diversity task force, which will make recommendations about specific steps we need to take to accomplish these goals.

Make no mistake: Our diversity task force by itself won't solve the systemic problems that underlie our diversity challenges in SEJ, but we can chip away at the problem and lead by example.

It's clear that the media broadly suffers from a lack of diversity, especially on the environment and related beats. To help the industry solve these problems, SEJ needs to help pique the interest of journalism students, digital media editors and niche publications in environmental reporting by showing that environmental journalism doesn't just cover trees, flowers, oil spills and national parks. We cover indoor air quality, drinking water contamination, trash in the streets, urban flooding and much more, too.

SEJ can equip these journalists to more effectively cover environmental challenges in their neighborhoods, and they can help us become more relevant to a new generation and broader array of journalists.

We've got a long way to go, but we're working on it. The result, I hope, is more incisive environmental reporting across the globe aided by our members whose sense of family that accompanies SEJ membership will only grow stronger.

Loss sparks sense of SEJ family

It was SEJ's sense of family that burst forth from our members when longtime SEJ member and environmental health journalist Lizzie Grossman entered hospice and passed away after a long battle with cancer.


I remember vividly her voice

when Lizzie called into the meeting

from her hospital bed. 


Lizzie told me she was ill earlier this year because her illness kept her from traveling to SEJ Board meetings.

I'm a South Carolina native, and when someone I know is suffering from a terminal illness, my home state's motto often comes to mind: Dum spiro spero. "While I breathe, I hope."

There is always hope that one will prevail over illness against all odds so long as one still breathes. I hoped that Lizzie's cancer wasn't as devastating as it was. I hoped that she'd be at our next board meeting and run for reelection at the Pittsburgh conference so she'd continue to be one of SEJ's most fervent advocates for freelancers.

I remember vividly her voice during our July SEJ Board meeting when Lizzie called into the meeting from her hospital bed. A few days later, she told us she'd be moving into hospice and she'd have to resign from the board.

Still, we hoped. And I'm sure she did, too.

My hope that Lizzie, a dear member of the SEJ family, would overcome cancer held out until a few Friday evenings ago when I pulled off the highway as I drove into New York City, read my email at a gas station and learned that she had passed away. By the time I got home, dozens of messages were posted to the Listserv expressing such deep sorrow and love.

The outpouring of love continues. We have now created "The Lizzie" SEJ Conference Travel Fellowship to honor her dedication to supporting freelancers. As I write this, well over $4,000 have been contributed.

The truly astounding wave of support for Lizzie before and after her passing illustrates how deeply a sense of family and camaraderie runs among our members. As SEJ diversifies, grows and adapts to tomorrow's ever-shifting media and funding landscape, I'm confident that the sense of family so many of us have felt recently will remain strong.  

SEJ President Bobby Magill is an independent journalist and was most recently senior science and energy writer at Climate Central in New York.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 31. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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