Words Matter: Alt Right Alternatives

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons - NOGRAN s.r.o.

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons – NOGRAN s.r.o.

Journalists love to sprinkle their stories and reports with buzzwords in an effort to sound current. New lingo is often harmless, but not all words are universally benign.

The newly popular term “alt right” is an example of words that should be used with caution.

The term seeped into mainstream news stories over the past year as extremist groups adopted it as their moniker. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also pushed the term into the nation’s discussion when she used it during her campaign.

“Alt right” is a shortened version of the words “alternative right,” which is being used by groups that reject mainstream conservatism for extremist views. Those views may include generalized racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, white nationalism and/or antifeminism.

There are several reasons why journalists and news organizations should be cautious about casually using the words “alt right” in their day-to-day coverage.

First, the term is clumsy and ambiguous. Many Americans may not be familiar with the intricacies of “alt right.” The term may be interpreted as simply extreme conservatism or as a catch-all for right-wing politics. In some cases, those reading, watching or listening to the news may be left confused or misinformed.

People understand what it means when views or opinions are described as racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT, however. Those specific words should be used in place of the generic and clumsy term “alt right.”

Obviously, journalists shouldn’t refuse to use the term or words “alt right,” but it must be put into the proper context.

For example, an organization’s views may be described as racist and anti-Semitic, and the reporter can state the group considers itself part of the “alt right.” The person reading, listening or watching that story will grasp the gist of the organization’s views and know the group identifies with the “alt right.”

Additionally, journalists and news organizations must always be on alert for groups trying to manipulate the press. In this case, the press may unconsciously help extremist groups rebrand racism, anti-LGBT views, anti-Semitism, white supremacy and other extremist views as “alt right.”

Journalists must carefully choose their words, especially when sensitive topics are being discussed. When in doubt, journalists should always err on the side of specificity and context.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society of Professional Journalists‘ ethics committee.

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TV Execs, Journos Fail Viewers With Off-the-record Meeting

Screenshot of Peter Finch portraying Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network.

Screenshot of Peter Finch portraying Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network.

Television networks sent their executives and A-list personalities on Monday to Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan for an off-the-record meeting with President-elect Donald Trump.

The meeting between the executives, personalities and Trump is a slap in the face to journalists who see a new presidential administration as a way to recommit themselves to thorough and responsible journalism.

Accounts of the meeting differ, but CNN’s Brian Stelter reports Trump criticized some of the networks at the start. The future president also asked – allegedly – for a cordial relationship between the press and his White House administration.

Only those who were in the meeting will truly know what happened thanks to the networks foolishly agreeing “not to talk about the substance of the conversations.” What’s worse, few – if any – of the journalists and personalities attending today’s meeting appeared to disclose on air that they met with Trump.

Off-the-record meetings with presidents and elected officials are not new or uncommon occurrences. In fact, stories about off-the-record meetings between journalists and presidents date back to at least Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

Precedent does not mean journalists and news organizations should blindly agree to off-the-record meetings with presidents and other government officials, however. Time, place and circumstance should dictate that decision.

In this case, Trump repeatedly harassed and taunted the press during his campaign. He actively worked to discredit fair and responsible pieces of journalism. Additionally, Trump so far failed to establish a protective press pool, which is a small group of journalists that travels with high-ranking officials.

While Trump can remedy some of these grievances, it should come as no surprise to journalists that presidents and their administrations sometimes work to make the press ineffective. The job of journalists and news organizations is to be stronger and rise above those challenges.

The major television networks that attended today’s meeting are  one of the most powerful forces in the country, but their agreement to keep its contents off the record suggests they will not use that power to fight for access or for the benefit of their viewers and listeners. Instead, they will likely beg for access and feed on the scraps thrown to them by the incoming administration.

The American people who depend on those news organizations deserve better.

The New York Times and its executives will meet tomorrow with Trump, according to Stelter. The meeting will start off the record and lead into an on-the-record conversation with reporters and columnists from the newspaper.

My hope is that journalists and news organizations realize the amount of power they still wield, and use it for the benefit of their readers, viewers, listeners and all Americans.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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Journalists Should Tread Lightly When Projecting Election Results

(Photo Adapted From Flickr Creative Commons/Maltri)

(Photo Adapted From Flickr Creative Commons/Maltri)

Americans will receive up-to-the-minute data on Election Day through a partnership between Slate and data startup VoteCastr. Journalists and news organizations should be cautious about reporting certain information that may influence voters on Election Day, however.

Journalists are meant to influence people’s decisions through the reporting of accurate information. Whether a person is buying a car or voting for the next president, members of the public use information provided by journalists to make their decisions.

The relationship between journalists and the public is a foundational element of democracy.  Part of that relationship requires journalists to know when to give the public space. The space typically occurs on Election Day.

Journalists and news organizations closely follow voting projections and results, but are careful not to make any announcements that might interfere with the actual results of races. The projected winners of elections are traditionally not called by news organizations until a state’s polls are closed.

A partnership between Slate and VoteCastr is challenging that tradition by providing up-to-the-minute voting data from around the country on Election Day.

“Votecastr plans to fill that gap with turnout data — not exit polls — it collects on its own, from key polling places across the country, and will meld it with pre-election polling it has done, and then project a current vote total for specific races and geographies,” according to Recode’s Peter Kafka.

One of the main concerns is that these types of projections may suppress voter turnout. For example, people who are told Hillary Clinton is far behind Donald Trump in Pennsylvania may decide to stay home. Or, people told Donald Trump is far behind Hillary Clinton in Florida may decide to stay home.

Plus, the totals published by Slate – and apparently streaming on Vice News – will be only projections for Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Votecastr will not have access or know what votes were actually cast in each of those states. In other words, it will be an educated guess. Those projections and educated guesses may be wrong.

“The role of journalists is to bring information to people, not to protect them from it,” wrote Julia Turner, editor-in-chief of Slate, on September 10. “But on Election Day, media outlets usually take the opposite approach.”

Turner’s stance is cavalier. One of the main functions of journalism is to decide what information and data is and is not vital to the public. The indiscriminate publishing of information – as exemplified by WikiLeaks – can cause very real harm to people and national security.

The Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics says journalists should “recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.” In other words, journalists shouldn’t publish information for the sake of publishing information.

The concern that early projections will decrease or suppress voter turnout is a hunch, according to Turner. “Academics examining the question have found no consistent effects on voter behavior,” she wrote.

There is evidence that media projections do have a “small yet significant effect in decreasing turnout” once researchers account for voter- and election-specific variables. Most social science papers examining media projections on voter turnout call the possible suppression the “West Coast effect” since voting ends much later in states like California and Washington. Research suggests this effect may be particularly important when races are close.

National polls currently show the U.S. presidential candidates from the two main political parties separated by 1 to 6 percentage points. While Slate and VoteCastr may not have the weight to change tomorrow’s election results, other journalists and news organizations should be hesitant to follow their paths.

Traditions frequently need to be reexamined, but sometime there are justifiable reasons and purposes behind those habits and actions.

Journalists and news organizations should hope everyday Americans vote based on the truthful stories and reports they published during the past two years about the candidates and their platforms – not mid-day projections.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee.

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Election Day Video Request Misses Mark

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons - C x 2

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons – C x 2

Musician and actor Justin Timberlake sparked a legal debate last month by posting a picture of him voting early in Tennessee. One of the nation’s largest broadcasters is now asking average citizens to do something similar with video.

Sinclair Broadcast Group is teaming up with Burst, which is a mobile video platform, to receive “viewer-generated video from hundreds of polling places through the Burst platform,” according to a Burst blog post. The videos will be used in Sinclair’s Election Day news coverage.

Sinclair, which is an investor of Burst, previously used the platform to collect videos from large events, according to The Baltimore Sun.

There are a couple of reasons using the platform is different on Election Day, though. Mainly, Sinclair may put its viewers and the integrity of its news broadcasts at risk if it’s successful in getting everyday Americans to take and submit videos from polling places.

Laws on taking pictures vary from state to state, according to CNN. Laws against taking videos at polling locations likely vary across the country, too.

One of my concerns is that Sinclair may lead the viewers of its 173 television stations into tricky legal situations by telling them to take videos at polling locations. People may be fined or arrested if they are not adequately informed about their state’s laws.

Unlike professional journalists who are sent to report news, everyday Americans would not have the benefit of trained media lawyers or company attorneys. Broadly asking people to take videos at polling locations also seems irresponsible since most American news organizations are cautious about encouraging people to break laws for news stories.

The integrity of Sinclair’s newscasts may also be in jeopardy if its journalists don’t independently report each video. Lies, rumors, misconceptions and other inaccuracies may make it to air and needlessly harm the integrity of the election process.

People call in tips all the time to journalists and news organizations, but professional journalists are then supposed to investigate each tip before turning it into stories that make it to print or on air.

News organizations should continue to follow and investigate news tips, but not lead their readers, viewers or listeners into legally questionable situations. Additionally, they should do everything in their power to protect the integrity of their news reports – especially on Election Day.


I sent a series of questions along with a request for a talk Thursday to three of Sinclair’s officers, but didn’t receive a response at the time this post was published.

Among my questions:

  • Will Sinclair stations provide viewers with detailed and state-specific information to keep them from being fined or arrested if they take video inside prohibited areas?
  • Will Sinclair assume financial and legal liability for its viewers if they get into trouble while filming?
  • How will Sinclair ensure the editorial integrity of its newscasts?
  • Will each video be independently reported by a Sinclair journalist?

I will update this post if I receive a response from Sinclair.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Journalists Should Be Guided by Fairness and Impartiality in Election’s Final Days

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Social media coverage drives the conversation surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign – whether it’s live-tweeting of a campaign stop or a Facebook Live broadcast of a campaign speech. The presidential election is one of the most significant news stories of the year. Audiences expect quality analysis and insight.

Instead of in newspapers or over the airwaves, stories often start on Twitter and other social media platforms. Yet, the change of venue doesn’t mean the rules for journalists change.

The Society’s Code of Ethics encourages journalists to seek truth and report it, irrespective of platform. Impartiality is the cornerstone of this principle – whether a journalist is reporting a campaign speech or assessing the race thus far. They have to be fair.

Impartiality extends to the curation of the conversation about news, be it on a journalist’s account or on a news organization’s account. Journalists, as private citizens, may have political opinions that differ from one political party or the other, but coverage of the election is not about them or their views. Instead, it’s about the information readers, viewers and listeners need to know before stepping into a voting booth.

The results of the election, from local to federal office, will have implications beyond this night. People are coming to journalists for help understanding what these results mean for them. The audience comes to journalists because they trust them, and that’s a bond not worth breaking.

Protecting that bond also means journalists must be careful about how they interact with different viewpoints. The Code of Ethics says journalists need to promote the civil, open exchange of views – including views that you may find repulsive or disagree with. That also applies when they’re curating a conversation. Don’t demean people for their views.

The same rule should be remembered after election night, too. When  journalists  are covering a speech or other event, they shouldn’t editorialize. The language they use may be interpreted differently by others.

Just state the facts, and remember the six fundamental questions of journalism – who, what, when, where, why and how. Include various and evidence-based viewpoints and provide context to help guide the conversation that follows.

Sound and impartial reporting – whether on social media or traditional media – will keep readers, viewers and listeners coming back for information, including on election night.


Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of the SPJ Digital community, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and a contributor to its blog network. He is also a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.
Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine (www.kettlemag.co.uk), an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter @alex_veeneman.
The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.
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“Our Republic and Its Press Will Rise or Fall Together”

Joseph Pulitzer's bust stands next to a plaque bearing his words in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall, which houses the Columbia University Graduation School of Journalism. (Picture via Matt Drange)

A bust of Joseph Pulitzer stands next to a plaque bearing his words in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall, which houses the Columbia University Graduation School of Journalism. (Picture via Matt Drange)

The text on one of the plaques mounted in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University in New York caught my eye as I left the building earlier this month. The words its bronze letters spell out are easily the most famous Joseph Pulitzer ever put on paper.

“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together,” the quote begins.

As an alumnus of the Graduate School of Journalism, I passed by the plaque hundreds or thousands of times during my life. I always agreed with Pulitzer’s observation, but I now find it haunting.

All journalists should be troubled by the events taking place during these last few weeks of the 2016 presidential election. There is no doubt that a significant portion of people on both sides of the political spectrum distrust journalists and the press.

A substantial amount of work is needed to rebuild the public’s trust, but there are only 22 days until the election. Journalists and news organizations must take action during these last few weeks to restore at least some people’s faith in reporting and stories.

The shared knowledge among journalists that our colleagues across the country are fulfilling their duties is no longer good enough.

One potential approach is to be aggressively transparent for stories involving the election. Journalists and news organizations should go out of their ways to explain the reporting process for each story. If necessary, create a footnote. Seeing is believing in today’s world.

Another approach in the same vein is to publish or broadcast stories explaining the editorial processes in newsrooms. For example, who assigns stories? Do reporters pitch stories? Once assigned, how are stories reported? Who writes and edits the stories? How does the newsroom guarantee fairness? Who owns the news organization? Do the owners dictate what stories are told?

These approaches may seem odd or strange, but so are the current discussions taking place across the U.S.

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for the White House, is repeatedly stating the upcoming election will be rigged with help from the press, for example. While I can’t find data to estimate how many people share his belief, it’s safe to assume that many people are at least talking about his comments.

In the past, journalists and news organizations could offer comfort to the American people during elections by explaining that they’ll be fulfilling their roles as watchdogs of democracy. Without aggressively trying to restore some faith in stories and reports coming out of U.S. news organizations, I don’t know if that assurance will cut it this time around.

I understand that many Americans still believe in the stories and reports ethical journalists publish and broadcast each day. For some reason, many other Americans don’t share that belief.

Journalists and news organizations need to immediately start taking steps to address this issue.

Pulitzer realized in 1904, when he wrote his famous words, that journalists have the ability to lead the country.

“The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations,” he wrote.

My hope is that journalists can harness their abilities to restore faith in its work and ensure the security of democracy in the U.S.


Andrew M. Seaman is the ethics committee chairperson for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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NBC Owes Viewers Explanations About Trump Tape

Photo Illustration of NBC's Mobile Homepage 10/08/16

Photo Illustration of NBC’s Mobile Homepage 10/08/16

A tape released Friday sent the 2016 U.S. presidential election into chaos, and led to prominent Republicans calling for Donald Trump, the party’s nominee, to drop out of the race. The tape should also prompt a serious discussion about the editorial oversight of NBC News.

The tape, which was first published by The Washington Post, exposes a 2005 conversation between Trump and Billy Bush, who was then co-anchor of Access Hollywood – distributed by a subsidiary of NBCUniversal. Bush is now “co-host of the third hour of NBC News’ ‘TODAY,’ according to the show’s website.

Sources at NBC told CNN’s Brian Stelter that Access Hollywood and its news division were working on stories about the 2005 conversation before The Washington Post published its story. Since any news stories about the conversation from NBC would also severely harm one of the network’s stars, it’s important to remain skeptical about those reports.

Even if Stelter’s sources are correct, NBC should realize – at the very least – the cross pollination of talent between its subsidiaries is harming the reputation of the organization’s news division. At most, NBC News’ fundamental journalism mission has been usurped by the larger organization’s bottom line.

As someone who often speaks out when news organizations violated the basic ethical principles of journalism, I often choose not to write about violations involving TODAY or ABC’s Good Morning America. Those shows have a long history of cringe-worthy ethical violations, and cries of foul fall on deaf ears.

Remaining questions about the existence of the 2005 tape  point to more systemic issues at NBC, however. For example, why are NBC News employees colluding with Access Hollywood? Also, does NBC News know of any similar conversations caught on tape for other NBC programs, such as The Apprentice?

There are also legitimate questions surrounding Bush’s future role within NBC News. For example, will he be back Monday on TODAY? I don’t think bringing Bush back before the end of the 2016 election can be viewed as a responsible decision.

People who get their news from NBC deserve answers and explanations to these questions. They also deserve an assurance that NBC News will be independent from other divisions of the parent organization. Until then, I think it’s justifiable to remain skeptical about the editorial oversight of an organization that allows its entertainment and journalism arms to regularly intermingle at the expense of the American people.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society’s ethics committee.

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The Times and Trump’s Taxes

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

The New York Times on Saturday published excerpts from Donald Trump’s 1995 income tax returns. The decades-old documents give insight into the financial history of the Republican nominee for the White House.

Throughout the campaign, Trump repeatedly declined to release his tax returns. In an email to the Times, his lawyer claimed the publication of the records is “illegal because Mr. Trump has not authorized the disclosure of any of his tax returns.”

While I’m not a lawyer or expert on tax law, The Washington Post previously reported that “federal law prohibits ‘any person’ from printing, publishing or soliciting tax-return information without the taxpayer’s authorization.”

If true, the Times may find itself in a courtroom in the near future.

The words legal and ethical are not synonyms, however. What is legal is not always ethical, and what is ethical is not always legal.

In my view, the Times made a sound ethical decision by publishing Trump’s tax returns.

The Society’s Code of Ethics suggests that journalism is often a balancing act. News organizations may need to take extraordinary actions if the resulting material is so beneficial and vital to the public.

Journalism is the foundation of democracy and the documents published by the Times provide needed information for people heading to voting booths in almost one month.

While people may argue over the legality of what the Times did regarding Trump’s tax returns, the paper appears to have made the ethical choice.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Debating the Role of Debate Moderators

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

The upcoming U.S. presidential and vice presidential debates are high-stakes events for the candidates. The debates will also be defining moments for the five journalists tasked with moderating the conversations.

Each journalist will be scrutinized on a number of factors, such as the questions they ask and their ability to control the debate. More than ever, the journalists will also be judged on whether they decide to “fact check” the candidates’ statements.

The campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called on moderators to correct her opponent if he lies during the debate. The campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump believes it’s not the role of the moderators to fact check the candidates, however.

The truth is that journalists moderating debates – whether among presidential candidates or city council members – can’t allow blatant inaccuracies to go uncorrected. The journalists also can’t be expected to catch every lie or misstatement.

Journalists should seek truth and report it, according to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. They don’t shed that responsibility just because they’re moderating a debate.

The truth is not partisan or biased.

If one of the candidates, for example, misstates the starting date of the invasion of Iraq, the moderator should be free to say the correct date is March 20, 2003.

Realistically, the journalists are limited by their own knowledge and certainty about a specific topic. The journalists shouldn’t barge into the discussion if they’re unsure about their own facts or figures.

The journalists also shouldn’t attempt to correct candidates on broad statements about policy issues, such as health care or national security.  Each candidate by now should be well versed in his/her opponent’s policies and ready to debate those matters.

So the question is not whether a debate moderator should correct candidates. The correct question is whether a debate moderator appropriately and fairly corrected the candidates.


Andrew M. Seaman is the ethics committee chairperson for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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Canary in the Coalmine: Trust in Media Hits New Low

untitledLess than a third of American adults trust the media at least “a fair amount,” according to a new Gallup poll. The finding is the most dismal since Gallup started taking the poll in the 1970s.

More than any other measure or metric, Gallup’s new report should be a proverbial coalmine canary for the media and democracy.

The research company writes that trust in media reached a peak in 1976, when almost three quarters of American adults believed what they read, watched and heard. As Gallup notes, 1976 followed a number of iconic investigative reports on the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

In its most recent years, the poll’s findings appear to be cyclical with trust falling most during presidential election years and rebounding slightly during the following three years. The result is a steady decline over several decades.

No single factor explains people’s declining trust in the media. Though, a lot of it – in my opinion – is due to the internet pulling back a curtain on the media starting in the early 2000s. Like food, media is much more palatable when people don’t know what goes into it or how it’s made.

The quantity of media produced also makes the prevalence of mistakes, errors and offenses in media appear greater than in the past. People may have heard about major mistakes or scandals at newspapers or broadcast organizations prior to the internet, but today every piece of media can be picked apart and put on a stake for the world to see.

Another of the many factors influencing trust in media is the current U.S. political climate. People – especially conservatives – feel the media is largely working against their best interests.

While about half of self-identified liberals trust the media at least “a fair amount,” Gallup found trust among conservatives fell to 14 percent – from 32 percent a year ago.

There are no easy remedies to the media’s trust drought, but it needs to be addressed – especially within journalism – for altruistic and business purposes.

First, there is no democracy without a strong and independent press. There is also no democracy if the vast majority of people don’t believe its strong and independent press.

Second, journalism is a business, and truth is its product. If people don’t view stories and reports from the press as the truth, the product is little or no value to consumers and advertisers.

One of the key moves the media must make to build trust is to educate people about itself. People don’t trust what they don’t understand. People in media, media companies and the U.S. education system need to teach people to be educated and critical consumers of media.

Another equally large move that needs to be made specifically within the journalism community is to stop trying to reinvent the core mission of the profession.

As the 2016 presidential election enters its last few weeks of life, critics and commentators continue to call on journalists to invent entirely new approaches to journalism in an effort to cover what is universally seen as unprecedented events.

Journalism does not need a reinvention, however. The profession needs its practitioners to recommit themselves to its core principles, which are outlined in the Society’s Code of Ethics.

The call to commit to those principles may seem out of touch, but at some point people must realize the core mission of journalism is largely unchanged since the dawn of communication.

“While tastes have ebbed and flowed and news has been at times more and less serious, historians have discovered that the basic news values have remained relatively constant throughout time,” write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their book The Elements of Journalism.

What changes in journalism is not the underlying mission or principles, but the delivery systems – from print to broadcast to digital.

Journalists need to be advocates for the truth and shun speculation, innuendos, rumors partisanship and lies. Once reported, it’s up to the public to use that information to make decisions in their daily lives and in voting booths.

The road to rebuilding trust between the media and Americans is long, but it’s a journey journalists, news organizations and media companies must start on if they want to continue doing their work beyond the next few decades.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society’s ethics committee.

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