NAHJ will not discipline members accused of sexual misconduct following year-long investigation

Former NAHJ President and current president Hugo Balta, speak during the General Membership Meeting at the 2018 NAHJ Conference Miami, Fla., on Saturday, July 21, 2018. (Marie D. De Jesús/Latino Reporter)

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists will not take any disciplinary action against members accused of sexual misconduct following a year-long probe into several cases of inappropriate behavior, President Hugo Balta said at a news conference Thursday.

What began with a single allegation of sexual misconduct between a student member and a mentor ended Friday with a vote. The NAHJ board of directors approved the findings and recommendations from a committee of three investigators: Laura Castañeda, a former NAHJ national academic officer, Javier Palmera, former at-large officer, and Blanca Rios, the director for NAHJ’s Region 6, which is based in Chicago. 

At the Excellence in Journalism conference on Thursday, Balta said there was “forward thinking” discussions about penalizing future offenders, but the board did not discuss punishing any person named in the investigation.

“In regards to any disciplinary action, without going into detail, it’s not included,” Balta said.

The probe, which was announced on June 22, 2018, ahead of last year’s national conference, focused on sexual misconduct accusations that spanned years and involved a number of different members. 

[Read more: NAHJ board appoints three of its own to investigate allegations after years of inaction]

During the press conference, Balta said he could not confirm the number of allegations the board ultimately investigated or whether any had been tied to the NAHJ Student Project.

One of the most immediate outcomes was a code of conduct that was sent to members of NAHJ on Wednesday, ahead of this year’s conference in San Antonio.

NAHJ adopted the new code of conduct and encouraged its partners, including the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association, to do the same. In an email sent to conference-goers the organization said it would be considered “the official code of conduct for all of EIJ Conference. [sic]”

“The association strictly prohibits any form of … sexual or any other form of harassment or bullying, including unwelcome conduct, comments, gestures or contact, or intimidating or offensive behavior that is reasonably likely to cause offence or humiliation,” the document reads.  “Any violation of the Code is viewed as a serious matter regardless of whether or not the matter in question results or could result in loss or damage to the Association. Neither an intention to benefit the Association nor arguments of efficiency or convenience will excuse a violation of the Code.”

Balta said more information, including a summary of the investigators’ findings, will be released to NAHJ members sometime within the next month.

One recommendation adopted by the board was to “provide resources” for any member who has been in a situation where they have felt uncomfortable or threatened. NAHJ officials included a phone number and email address for a “rapid response team” in the email sent to all EIJ attendees. 

(L-R) NAHJ board members Javier Palmeria, Blanca Rios, and Laura Castañeda, during the General Membership Meeting at the 2018 NAHJ Conference Miami, Fla., on Saturday, July 21, 2018. (Marie D. De Jesús/Latino Reporter)

Balta said he wanted to have an update ready for members before the conference began, but decided taking more time to fully vet the results was more important.

[Read more: Allegations of sexual misconduct spur new policy: NAHJ student-mentor relationships banned]

“I respect and appreciate the work the committee did for more than a year, in order to really take the time to speak to as many people as possible, and form their conclusions and their recommendations,” Balta said. 

When the investigation launched last summer, the board announced it was looking into “an allegation concerning misconduct by persons associated with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists which occurred a number of years ago.” A day earlier, a lifetime NAHJ member had raised similar concerns, and called for an investigation, in a Facebook post.

NAHJ lifetime member Russell Contreras, a reporter with the Associated Press, wrote that there had been problems with the 2010 Student Project “and beyond.” He has since declined to comment further.

David Plazas, who was a mentor for the 2010 Student Project, said in an email last year that he became aware of an inappropriate relationship between a mentor and a student during the 2010 Student Project. Plazas went on to serve as project director or co-director in 2012, 2014 and 2015, and had no misconduct complaints registered with him in those years.

The situation in 2010 was handled by Mekahlo Medina, the 2010 project leader, who reported it to the board, Plazas said. He said he has no “first-hand knowledge” of the ongoing investigation.

“The mentor-mentee were disciplined,” Medina told The Latino Reporter. “and a new policy was put in place in 2011 regarding a code of conduct for the mentors and mentees.”

Hundreds of college students have worked on the Student Project and other NAHJ development programs in the more than 30 years NAHJ’s student programs have existed.

Karina Elwood is a 2019 NAHJ Student Project participant. She is a junior at the University of Florida majoring in journalism. She is the features editor at the Independent Florida Alligator and spent her summer interning at the Orlando Sentinel justice and safety desk. Reach her at karina.elwood@ufl.edu and on Twitter at @Karina_Elwood.

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