An Open Letter to the Society of Professional Journalists

IMG_20170812_082357To the SPJ Board of Directors:

What does a woman’s butt have to do with a journalism conference? The answer is, of course, nothing, but that’s not what thousands of SPJ member were led to believe when they looked at the July/August issue of Quill.

I kind of understand how this happened. Someone was like, “Hey, we need art for a feature called ‘Training Day,’ which will connect the concept of boot camp to sessions offered for the 2017 Excellence in Journalism conference!” and someone else was like “Let’s do a woman running up a flight of stairs!” All of which is pretty problematic in and of itself, but the execution is completely inexcusable. We don’t get to see this woman’s face, she is simply an object, and the focal point of the cover photo is her butt.

I’m not alone in thinking this was a colossal screw-up. By the time I decided to take my concerns to Twitter, another journalist in Texas had tweeted about the same thing. After I posted my feelings about the cover, I received an overwhelming response from the New Mexico (where I’m based) journalism community expressing their outrage at the photo.

I tweeted this at the SPJ account to share my concerns:

‪@spj_tweets‪ I am FURIOUS. With all the “locker room talk” and sexism in tech discussion, you think THIS is an appropriate cover??.”

They gave me the following reply (the same reply that was given to the Texas journalist):

“Thank you for taking the time to share your opinions with us. We value your input. The photo was chosen several weeks ago to represent a story about training yourself. Our opinion, and that of others we have talked to, is that the photo is not sexist. Rather, it depicts a woman wearing typical workout clothing. We are sorry some readers find it offensive.”

This is—let’s be honest here—a pretty shitty explanation and an even shittier apology. The comment about “chosen several weeks ago” seems to imply that the same photo would not have been chosen in light of the Google manifesto story, which is a sort of tacit admission that the photo is, at the very least, insensitive. I don’t think I need to tell anyone on the board that sexism is a very long-standing issue in this country, not to mention in our profession.

And let’s talk about “depicts a woman wearing typical workout clothing.” Yeah, but, like, why? Why was it necessary to depict a faceless woman in spandex working out and not like, male and female journalists working out together? Or maybe, if you did use a woman for the photograph, a focal point that wasn’t her butt? Just spit-balling here.

I have a feeling that some of you think I am blowing this out of proportion, but I also have a feeling that some of you know that I’m not. Maybe some of you have had some of the same experiences that I’ve had in the journalism industry. You know, the ones that aren’t something worth filing a sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuit over, but the ones that very quietly tell you that you maybe you don’t deserve the same respect or opportunities as your older, whiter, male-r colleagues. And some of you know I’m right when I say that when a young woman at the beginning of her journalism career goes into her editor’s office and sees that picture on his desk, she’s going to be ever-so-slightly less likely to ask for that raise she knows she deserves.

The part of the SPJ Code of Ethics I hold most dear is the line that says, “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.” I have a version of this statement written on a Post-It and stuck to my computer. It’s hard to imagine another time in our nation’s history when that idea has been more relevant, for all journalists, no matter what they cover. I primarily write about business, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how the actions of powerful companies—Facebook, Amazon, and the like—affect state- and local-level issues, particularly those related to marginalized communities. It’s about “giving a voice to the voiceless,” right? If we abandon our mission to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” we abandon our duties as the Fourth Estate.

In this situation, you are the powerful, the comfortable. You are the oldest organization representing journalists in the United States. Quill is sent to thousands of your members, who then throw the publication on their desks, the cover visible to anyone who walks by. Here’s my big ask from you:

  1. Acknowledge that the photo was sexist.
  2. Figure out the chain of command that allowed such a photo to appear on the cover of Quill.
  3. Have a meeting where everyone is in agreement about how to make sure this will never happen again.
  4. Share #1 through #3 in a very public way.

Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Marie C. Baca

Update 8/13/17: Board member Andy Schotz responded to my letter in a blog post. Here is the comment I wrote in response:

Hi Andy,

Thanks for continuing the dialogue. A few things I want to respond to here:

  1. I’d like to clarify my comment about a photo of a running woman being in and of itself “problematic.” I’m sure there’s a feature topic for which an image of a running woman would be an appropriate cover choice (a story about women running, for example), but it’s not for a story that is essentially an advertisement for the SPJ conference. Even if the subject had been photographed in a way that emphasized something other than her butt, the fact that a faceless woman in tight workout clothing was used to tease a conference story makes SPJ no better than the advertisers we criticize in other contexts.
  2. Yes, there are famous photos of people shot from behind, but the Babe Ruth image you refer to in your post creates a dangerous false equivalence. When readers saw that Babe Ruth photo, they knew exactly who they were looking at. If, for some reason, they didn’t know it was Babe Ruth, or didn’t recognize his jersey number, the rest of the photograph indicates that this is a man in a position of power who is being honored by thousands of people. The SPJ photo could not be more different. We have no idea who this woman is, because we can’t see her face and we have no other contextual clues. She isn’t a person here; she’s an object, and her butt is the central focus of the image. Combine that with our industry’s long history of sexism and complacency even today, the photo is in my mind, incredibly sexist.
  3. I appreciate your comment about this possibly being one of those “times we in the newsroom either didn’t have the right conversation or didn’t have one at all.” To me, this is the crux of the issue.

Lastly, I want to talk about your comment that “sexist” isn’t a fair label for this photo, “as it implies prejudice or discrimination.” But that’s exactly what’s going on here. Not all sexism in our industry is overt, Mad Men-era ideas that women should only write about fashion lest they bleed all over the news page. In this day and age, it is more likely to be subtler, but just as insidious. This photo is discriminatory because it treats the woman as an object and uses her butt as the central focal point despite there being no real reason to do so. It is a lazy choice for a feature package that is essentially an advertisement. While I appreciate this post, I stand by my claims that the SPJ should investigate this issue, apologize, and assure their members this will never happen again.

Best,

Marie

Update 8/14/17. I spoke on the phone with SPJ president Lynn Walsh. Lynn said SPJ does not plan to investigate further or issue any further statements.

Update 8/18/17. Responses published by SPJ diversity chair Dori Zinn, SPJ board member Michael Koretzky, and the SPJ Rio Grande Chapter.

SPJ national secretary-treasurer J. Alex Tarquinio said via Twitter that “the staff didn’t intend to make a sexist cover, but clearly members were offended. If a woman finds it sexist then it is to her. So moving forward, I’ve advised HQ that the new Quill editor should be made aware of the need for sensitivity to diverse subjective views.” When I asked her whether SPJ planned to issue any further statements or investigate the issue further, she said, “I shared what I told the staff as a member, but I can’t speak for SPJ. Only the president or communications office can do that.”

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