Alaska, Education

Fairness and introspection at Alaska Press Club Conference

Alaska Press Club Conference at UAA last weekend. Heidi Zemach photo
Alaska Press Club Conference at UAA last weekend. Heidi Zemach photo

By Heidi Zemach for SCN –

What do Alaska journalists talk about when they’re at a conference together? The 2014 Alaska Press Club Conference in Anchorage April 24-26 was attended by Anchorage TV reporters, and radio and newspaper reporters from across the state, as well as some UAA journalism students, professors, and Alaska bloggers.

With all the uncertainties and turnover in media these days, they talk privately about their own and one another’s jobs, and what they’re doing these days, of course. Another big topic of conversation was the Alaska Dispatch’s recent purchase of Anchorage Daily News, along with its building and staff reporters. Gossip aside, the purpose of the annual conference is to network, share ideas, hone skills and learn new ones.

This year’s focus was on fairness. There was an ethics seminar looking specifically into the difference between being fair and being balanced, on handling anonymous sources, and how involved journalists should be in their own communities. There was also a discussion over creating an Alaska Press Club style book with Alaska-specific terminology, use, and correct pronunciation. Should radio reporters or news writers use the term “Outside” or the “Lower 48” to refer to the contiguous United States? Is the term “Outside” pejorative? The journalists attending agreed to use twitter to discuss it further.

Panel with APD's Jennifer Castro, Maj. Candis Olmstead with Alaska National Guard, and Megan Peters with State Troopers. Heidi Zemach photo
Panel with Anchorage Police’s Jennifer Castro, Maj. Candis Olmstead with Alaska National Guard, and Megan Peters with Alaska State Troopers. Heidi Zemach photo

A seminar with public information officers from Anchorage Police Department, Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska National Guard turned into a major complaint-session about the perceived lack of information provided to reporters during and after crimes and searches and rescues. The reporters, particularly Sean Doogan of Alaska Dispatch and Dave Bendiager of KDLG public radio in Dillingham, said they  often don’t get enough information that they request, and what they do get often isn’t timely enough. Megan Peters, an AST spokesperson and Maj. Candis Olmstead, the spokesperson for the Alaska National Guard decried certain reporter’s pushiness in trying to get information that wasn’t even yet available to them, and said reporting inaccuracies often made their department officers leery of speaking to the press directly. The focus following shootings or during rescues, they said, is on catching those responsible or saving lives—not talking with reporters. With small staffs, often spread out across the state, the officers involved need some down time to sleep, and their higher ups are often tied up in important meetings and can’t be immediately reached.


During another seminar, Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins, nearing the end of a yearlong series reporting in-depth on the impact of alcohol in Alaska, offered some tips for when it’s a bad idea for reporters to assume a crime is alcohol-related. A person receiving a DUI doesn’t automatically mean that they were driving under the influence of alcohol, Hopkins said. He also suggested that more press attention be given in Alaska’s communities to the state’s influential Alcohol Control Board, and their meetings attended. He also suggested that reporters generally spend more time in the communities they wish to cover, and give more coverage to the one angle that they always forget to report when writing about social and economic problem—solutions.

There was plenty of self-introspection about issues of race and homophobia. When, for instance, should a reporter refer to a suspect or victim’s race or ethnic group, and when should that detail be ignored? ADN columnist Julia O’Malley spoke with Dori Maynard, President of the Maynard institute for Journalism Education, an organization dedicated to helping news media accurately, fairly and credibly portray all segments of our society, and shared some of her own mistakes in addressing race. Maynard did likewise. In one case she left out Native Americans from a story reflecting the diversity of Americans, and in a very public and emotional tweet following Obama’s inauguration, she conflated the term “transgender” with “gay.” Reporters discussed whether they should one refer to people as “Black” or “African American,” or “Black” or “Bi-racial” and how to most accurately refer to Spanish speaking peoples.

Maynard urged the reporters to ask people featured in a story directly how they prefer to identify themselves, rather than putting a title on them, and to be sure to include the full diversity of their communities. Generally, she hopes for them to began a more nuanced conversation on race and ethnicity.

Benoit Denizet-Lewis, an openly gay New York Times Magazine writer, discussed the challenges of writing fairly and accurately about gender, identity, and sexual orientation. When looking into the commonly used scientific methods to prove people’s sexual orientation for a story, he had himself tested, and found himself to be gay under one test, and bisexual under another of the tests, rather than 100-percent gay as he had always believed. That gave him interesting grounds to explore the issue in greater depth as a reporter, and to make his feature more nuanced.

In this political season, there was a seminar on covering Alaska’s political races, and the difference between what candidates say and what they really mean. A major highlight of the three-day conference was an evening TV debate with Alaska’s Republican candidates running for the Senate against Democrat Mark Begich. Their responses to questions produced fodder to analyze later among some Alaska’s top political reporters. For the candidates, it was like spring training, defining themselves and some of the key issues for the campaign ahead, they said. All four reporters on the panel found them highly uninformed on many of the important issues that will likely be debated in the months ahead, and some of them are still saying that “Obama Care” should be repealed, although with more than eight million Americans signed up for insurance, that’s no longer a possibility. They frequently used buzz words such as “federal overreach” and “redistribution of wealth” without explaining how they applied to the question being asked.

The panelists also suggested Sen. Begich’s office is sending out far too many press releases to Alaska’s media on what he is doing daily in Washington, and thus hoping to shape the narrative of the coverage.