Some big news about the Society’s Code of Ethics

When the committee revising the Society’s Code of Ethics met on Ohio State University’s campus last summer, an idea without a name was born.


Screenshot of the SPJ Code of Ethics on the organization's website.

Screenshot of the SPJ Code of Ethics on the organization’s website.

The idea was to create a library of resources for people seeking additional guidance in the ethical practice of journalism.

After months of work, people now accessing the Society’s Code of Ethics on SPJ.org see small boxes and arrows next to specific principles. Those small boxes link to pages with resources that provide additional guidance related to that principle.

For example, a new page pops up when people click on the principle that says ethical journalists should “never plagiarize” and “always attribute.” The links on that new page include a position paper from the Society’s Ethics Committee about plagiarism and attribution, and a blog post from Steve Buttry about the importance of linking.

By the end of next week, each principle within the Society’s Code of Ethics will have supporting documents to aid people looking for guidance. The library of documents will never be complete. Instead, these lists will change as more resources are found, or as resources become obsolete.

Also, it’s important to note that these documents are not part of the Society’s Code of Ethics, which is found here.

SPJ's Code of Ethics in Arabic

SPJ’s Code of Ethics in Arabic

What’s more, people around the world will be able to begin using the Code thanks to months of work by the members of the Society’s International Journalism Community. The community’s members graciously volunteered their time to translate the Code into several languages.

Currently, the new version of the Code is available in Arabic, English, Chinese, French, German and Spanish. Soon, more languages will be added, including Russian.

As always, people with recommendations and thoughts on the supporting documents or translations should contact the Ethics Hotline at ethics@spj.org.

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#SPJ4ALL

Andrew M. Seaman standing in Times Square.

Seaman standing in Times Square.

After days of deliberation, I sent off a $350 check to the small private college that I thought would be my home for the four years following high school.


A large envelope from the college arrived a few weeks later in the mail. Inside were the usual forms about financial aid and housing, but there was also a form I didn’t expect – a “covenant.”

The school required students to sign a document that forbid several activities, including “homosexual behavior.” The joy I felt as a soon-to-be undergraduate quickly evaporated. My “behavior” wasn’t welcome there. The folder was tucked away, and I sent a check to another school.

While I wasn’t open about being gay at the time, attending a school where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people are accepted was important to me. Fortunately, I found that place. The school – and myself – are better, because of that accepting environment.

In the wake of Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” and several similar bills pending in U.S. state legislatures, the Society is making it known today that it is also a welcoming place for all.

As the Society’s Membership Committee Chair Robyn Davis Sekula writes on her committee’s blog, “SPJ is open for everyone, no matter the person’s race, gender, sexual orientation or any other factor. If you’re a journalist, you’re welcome here, and always will be.”

To show the Society’s acceptance of all journalists, it’s asking members to post selfies on social media with the hashtag #SPJ4ALL.

As someone who is gay and involved in a fair amount of the Society’s activities, I can attest that Robyn’s words are very true. I also support the #SPJ4ALL campaign, but it brings me back to a personal struggle I endured when I first entered journalism. Specifically, is it OK to be openly gay in a newsroom?

The question may sound silly at a time when the majority of states allow same-sex marriage and public support for legal recognition of those unions are at an all-time high, but it’s one that I – and I assume many other people – struggled or struggle with from time to time.

I’d sometimes avoid writing about LGBTQ issues out of fear that people would claim those stories were biased or driven by an agenda. The words of the Society’s Code of Ethics echoed through my head: “Journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”

After a couple years, I realized that I was doing a disservice to myself, peers and readers. Also, to focus on that specific principle within the Society’s Code misrepresents the entire document.

Openly LGBTQ journalists enrich stories with unique perspectives. For example, LGBTQ journalists may pay special attention to issues often unconsciously ignored or overlooked by others. They are also resources to their colleagues, who may not understand certain concerns, topics or terminology.

As for the Society’s Code, focusing on the principle regarding conflicts of interest results in people losing the proverbial forest for the trees. “The code should be read as a whole,” it says. “Individual principles should not be taken out of context.”

When someone takes a broader look at the Code, it says that ethical journalism treats “sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.” What’s more, it says that journalists should “consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.”

The Society and its Code don’t tell people to hide who they are in newsrooms or while reporting. More than anything, the spirit and words of the Code tell journalists to be themselves while understanding and accounting for their personal beliefs and biases.

While it may not always be easy – or safe in some places, being open about being LGBTQ will add to newsroom diversity and ultimately benefit everyone.

#SPJ4ALL


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

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Transparency, Civility and Respect in Ethical Debates

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1GRn5wn)

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1GRn5wn)

Journalists who joined the Society’s conversations about ethics last week noticed some interesting posts popping up on Twitter.


Many of the posts were links to articles about gaming, some were links to graphics and some posts were links to other Twitter posts.

The posts were from an online community known as GamerGate, which generally claims to be people interested in game culture concerned about ethics in journalism that covers the gaming industry. Others often point to the movement’s history and notoriety as a roving gang that engages in sexist, homophobic and threatening online attacks.

I – along with some other people in the Society’s leadership – decided to abandon the Twitter hashtag #SPJEthicsWeek, which we planned to use throughout the week, to minimize noise for people who wanted to engage in a broader conversation about journalism ethics.

I also urged people not to address the chorus of posts for the protection of the Society, its leaders and its members who would engage with each other over the Internet throughout the week. After all, the week’s theme was “minimize harm.” I did not want to take the risk of exposing anyone within the organization to harassment or threats. All other Ethics Week activities and engagements went on as planned.

This post is not meant to legitimize or endorse GamerGate, but I’d like to address the people who posted to the Twitter hashtag with engaging and lucid thoughts. I don’t want those people to think their contributions to our conversations about journalism ethics went unnoticed.

In fact,  some of those people were the most active and contributive during the Society’s two Twitter chats last week.

Abandoning the Twitter hashtag was simply the best course of action once the posts became sexist, homophobic, threatening, pornographic and – frankly – disgusting. I received some concerning messages, which were mostly deleted within a few hours. One person told me on Twitter, “man have you seen the giant mudslide of reckage[sic] we know as your (expletive) wake?”

As the chair of the Society’s ethics committee, I hate shutting out any people who want to have a discussion about journalism ethics. The point of the committee I lead is to teach people about the Society’s Code of Ethics.

Over the past year, I received several emails about the GamerGate movement. In fact, I’m quoted in a Nieman Reports story sparked by the movement about handling so-called “Twitter storms.”

Most of the emails I received dealt with getting permission to use the Society’s Code of Ethics to “score” gaming journalists on their ethics. In each case, I responded that it’s not possible to score a person’s ethics.

Some emails – and Twitter posts – called for gaming journalists to be fired. The Society is a professional organization that supports journalists and journalism. It does not have the power to fire journalists. Also, I do not comment on whether people should be fired.

Many of the emails – and Twitter posts – were also from anonymous accounts. In general, calls for transparency in journalism are not effective when they come from people who are anonymous.

This is not limited to GamerGate. I receive emails every now and then from people who – according to Google searches – do not exist. Sometimes I also receive emails from people who appear to misrepresent themselves. I’m very cautious and hesitant about responding to those emails.

People – journalists and non-journalists – who want to interact with others about the topic of journalism ethics should be transparent, courteous and civilized. One person should never harass, threaten or demean another.

Also, people in the U.S. are not forced to read, view or listen to stories from news organizations. If a person believes the information from a certain organization is inaccurate, they’re free to find other sources. People can support and encourage good and ethical journalism with subscriptions, views and listens – not harassment or threats.

The Society and its ethics committee will continue to work toward educating journalists about the Code of Ethics. We will also encourage its use. As is the tradition in U.S. journalism, I hope readers, viewers and listeners hold journalists to those standards, but through a transparent and civil dialogue.


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

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Ethics Week 2015: Like a surgeon

Photo Credit/Salim Fadhley

Photo Credit/Salim Fadhley

Like doctors, journalists often inflict some level of harm to serve the greater good.


A surgeon may slice through flesh to remove a diseased organ. A primary care doctor may prescribe medicine that causes side effects to control an even worse condition. Likewise, journalists may cause disruption in families, communities or countries to achieve their mission.

Throughout the past week, the Society of Professional Journalists asked its members and the public to think about the harm journalism may create. The focus of minimizing harm is not meant to convince journalists to shy away from important stories. Instead, it should serve as a reminder about the responsibility journalists hold.

When I first started presenting sessions or talks on the Society’s Code of Ethics, a question that was often asked is: How much harm is acceptable?

It’s a difficult question to answer, because acceptable levels of harm are relative and subjective.

In medicine, screenings or tests for diseases or conditions are not recommended until their benefits outweigh the risks. While it does not explicitly say it, the Society’s Code suggests a similar balancing act.

In the Code’s preamble, the Society states that its members “believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” Journalists support that by ensuring “the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.”

Elsewhere in the Code, journalists are told that even reporting practices that some people would never consider – undercover and surreptitious information gathering methods – may be acceptable if the result is “information vital to the public.” Even then, those methods should be a last resort, the Code says.

Basically, is the harm created by a reporting practice or story outweighed by the usefulness of the information it yields or presents? It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s the best advice that can be offered for such a subjective question.

The balancing act between usefulness of information and harm is supported elsewhere in the Code, too.

For example, the Code says to “recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.” Also, “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”

I often tell people that the words legal and ethical are not synonyms. Just because a journalist is legally allowed to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Of course, even properly evaluating the benefits and harms of a reporting practice or story may leave some – and in some cases a significant – amount of harm. Journalists must live with the consequences of their work. Being a responsible and ethical journalist should provide some  comfort.

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Ethics Week 2015: #ACESchat with David Cohn

SPJ_ETHICS_WEEKThe first Twitter chat of the Society’s Ethics Week happened Wednesday afternoon with Ethics Committee Member David Cohn, who is an executive producer at AJ+.

The American Society of Copy Editors hosted the discussion as part of its #ACESchat on Twitter.

Check out a Storify of the discussion, which focused on minimizing harm in digital editing, below:

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Ethics Week 2015: A question of balance

The theme of SPJ Ethics Week for 2015 is “Minimize Harm,” the third of the four basic tenets in the SPJ Code of Ethics.

All seven of the sub-sections of this tenet call on a reporter to make value judgments and to consider restraint in reporting information that he or she has a right to publish.

In fact, a new sub-section that was added in the 2014 revision to the Code is explicit: Journalists should “[r]ecognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”

And the Code cautions, “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

The addition of the last three words — “or undue intrusiveness” – in last year’s revision demonstrates the need for a heightened sense of respect for privacy of private people.

Those individuals have a greater right to control private information about themselves than a politician or other public figure, the Code states. A journalist must weigh the consequences of publishing that information, all in a way that seeks to minimize harm.

As with most journalism ethics questions, there aren’t many bright-line, black-and-white answers. The journalist must go through the analysis weighing or balancing (the need to “balance” alternatives appears in two of the seven sub-sections) the best course of action.

The Code addresses one particular dilemma in the next-to-last sub-section: How and what and when to report in a criminal case when there has been a crime committed but no one has been arrested so far.

Sometimes authorities will identify a “person of interest” in a criminal investigation, but that is a mushy, inexact euphemism. Maybe the person is a suspect but there isn’t enough to charge him yet. Or maybe he or she has information. Or maybe dangling a name is a way provide bait in a police fishing expedition, where the authorities someone will come forward with info on the “person of interest.”

Should the reporter name the “person” if the cops have given a name? Maybe, or maybe not. The Code suggests that the journalist should “[c]onsider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.”

What will be the impact on that individual if his or her name is published or broadcast?

Take a look at the cases of Richard Jewell and Steven Hatfill, probably two of the most prominent “persons of interest” in the past 20 years, and ponder the impact of that term on their lives and reputations.

Jewell originally was a hero of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing. He was a security guard who discovered a backpack full of bombs who alerted the FBI. But the feds began to treat him as a “person of interest.” He was subjected to intense coverage, scrutiny and ridicule. The local U.S. Attorney cleared him several months later. Jewell filed a number of lawsuits, including libel claims against CNN, NBC and the New York Post. He settled the suits, usually for amounts that were not disclosed.

Following the 2001 anthrax attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft named Hatfill, a government researcher, as a person of interest in the case, which involved mailing anthrax in letters to politicians and media outlets immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

Hatfill’s name was splashed all over the newspapers and the airwaves. He steadfastly maintained he was innocent. His phone was tapped, his home was raided and he was fired from his job. He filed a lawsuit against the government, which settled in 2008 for $4.6 million, including a statement of complete exoneration for any involvement in the attack.

Paul Fletcher is the president-elect of SPJ and a member of the Ethics Committee. He is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Virginia Lawyers Weekly, based in Richmond.

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Ethics Week 2015: Reporting from the Internet

Illustration Credit Sean MacEntee

Illustration Credit Sean MacEntee

In today’s journalism world, obtaining and sharing information can be instantaneous. 


Especially in breaking news situations we can find ourselves, as journalists, scrambling to collect, verify and publish the latest news we have.

In a lot of cases, this is when we turn to social media and the Internet. Whether you are looking at tweets, photos or posts online to use in your story, it’s important to carefully think about what and how you are publishing and producing this content.

Ethical issues pop up all the time when it comes to social media. Below are some points to consider if you’re going to use information or content from these sites.

Access. Asking yourself, what type of access you have to the information posted, is very important.

If you can only see the photo of John Doe because you are friends with him, is it OK to show that photo on TV in your story? I would argue it is not. But, if the same photo can be seen by anyone, so it was posted on his profile publicly, I would argue it is OK.

This is all about a person’s privacy and expectation of privacy. If the person posted it and made it so that only his friends can view it, is it ethical to share with the world because you have access as an insider or friend? I don’t think it is and wouldn’t do it unless I had permission from the individual or someone speaking on their behalf.

Self-verification. Just because someone claims to be Mary Sue online, doesn’t mean they are. Just because someone claims to be associated with a particular organization or individual online doesn’t make it true.

We have a responsibility as journalists to do our due diligence to verify the identity of the online profile and what is said on it. Use public records to help with this. Pick up the phone and call people or the organization to verify the association.

This goes for photos, posts and videos. Just because someone posted a photo or has it as their profile photo doesn’t mean it is them or even associated with them.

Always attribute. If you are pulling the information from someone’s Twitter feed or a Facebook post, say so in your story. Don’t just say an individual said this and leave out that it was said on social media.

Each social media site had its own lingo and culture. This can be important when telling your users John Doe did or said something. It also provides more insight for your audience into where and how you gathered the information.

Impact of sharing. This example always sticks with me. While at a social media seminar, the presenter (former SPJ Ethics Chair, Kevin Smith) showed a photo of car crash scene on the interstate.

A reporter had just arrived on scene, snapped a photo and posted it to Twitter. Great instant reporting.

Well, what the reporter probably didn’t think about was this: in the photo you could see the very badly damaged car and it looks like a really terrible accident. It was a powerful image for the story and really made you hope the people inside made it out alive. But, what you also saw was the vehicles license plate number.

That number identified the car, the owner and possibly family and friends. When you are just arriving on the scene of situations like this, family probably hasn’t been notified yet. How awful would it be for them to find out from your tweet?

Think about this as you share photos and videos. Try to remember to look at the whole photo before posting and consider things like license plates.

Context. If you are pulling information from social media you really have to give it complete context. If a post you are sharing from Twitter was from two years ago, mention that. I would go further to say, I think you should consider whether or not to use it at all.

Just because it was said at one point, doesn’t make it fair game in my eyes. Also, was it posted as part of a series of tweets or posts? Was it part of a response to someone else’s tweet? Was the photo taken at a theme party of some sort and that may be why the individual is dressed that way.

You really have to think about whether or not the information or photos make sense to use in the context of the story you are working on. You don’t want to misrepresent what you are presenting to the public.


This post is authored by Lynn Walsh, who is the Society’s secretary-treasurer and a member of it ethics committee. She also serves on the SPJ FOI and Generation J committees. She leads the investigative team at the NBC affiliate, KNSD Channel 7, in San Diego, California. Tweet to her, @LWalsh, or send her an email: Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.

SPJ_ETHICS_WEEKThis is one of a series of posts for Ethics Week, which spans April 19-25. Click here to read more about the week and how you can celebrate. You can read the complete and new version of the SPJ Code of Ethics by clicking here.

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Ethics Week 2015: Minimizing Harm in Times of Conflict

Photo Credit/Robert Kuykendall

Photo Credit/Robert Kuykendall

Freshman journalism students are often asked to define the word journalist.


The lesson at the end of the exercise is that the definition varies from person to person. Some words make repeat appearances – like truth and bias, but the most obvious word tends to be overlooked.

In my mind, journalists are humans.

Once again, a large U.S. city is being thrust into the national spotlight as people destroy neighborhoods in the wake of a person’s death. Freddie Gray died one week after being arrested by the Baltimore police department. Sometime during the arrest, he suffered a catastrophic injury, according to CNN.

As humans, journalists should understand that they must take care of themselves when covering unpredictable situations, like street protests.

The Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is an invaluable tool for journalists covering traumatic and possibly dangerous events. During similar events in Ferguson, Missouri, the Dart Center republished a January 2011 tip sheet on covering volatile street protests.

“A press pass by itself is no protection against the probability of being caught in a barrage of rocks, police batons, gunfire, shrapnel or drifts of tear gas,” according to the document.

Several experienced journalists share lessons they learned while covering volatile street protests in the document. Some tips include:

  • Be mindful of crowds and know their moods before “diving in.”
  • Have a quick exit route.
  • Interview leaders on both sides to show you’re just doing your job.
  • Bring a gas mask. Or, bandannas soaked in vinegar, and possibly a pair of swimming goggles.
  • Get enough sleep and food.
  • Bring water.
  • “When in doubt, don’t take the risk.”

Once journalists feel secure, their attention must turn to their jobs. They must hold on to their principles – even in unpredictable situations – to act with integrity and “ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough,” according to the Society’s Code of Ethics.

A rapidly evolving and unstable situation is no excuse for carelessness in reporting. While text, images and audio pour into a newsroom, it’s crucial that journalists continue to act as gatekeepers to serve the public good.

For example, a journalist must weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting unverified reports. They must also determine whether the good of broadcasting graphic images or audio outweighs the potential harm to the people on the receiving end of the media.

While journalists and their organizations may feel social media is the competitor to scoop, “neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy,” according to the Society’s Code.

Journalists should always take time to review the Code before major events or marathon reporting sessions. Especially in a frantic event, those few moments of reflection may lead to more responsible reporting and ultimately less harm to journalists and to the people on the receiving end of news reports.

“Scrutinize the guidelines, and a common theme emerges,” says the Ethics Committee’s position paper on covering grief, tragedy and victims. “Most important, journalists have a responsibility to report these stories in a careful – not careless – fashion.”

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Ethics Week 2015: Minimizing Harm

SPJ_ETHICS_WEEK

(This post was updated on April 27, 2015 at 11:10 a.m. EDT)

The Society’s Ethics Week is focusing on minimizing harm, which is a key tenet of the Code of Ethics.


The Society’s Code of Ethics is composed of four key tenets and almost three dozen underlying principles. While all four tenets are crucial to the Code, one tends to be at the heart of more Ethics Hotline queries than the others: Minimize Harm.

When the staff at the Society’s headquarters asked for an Ethics Week 2015 theme, it was obvious that “Minimize Harm” should be the highlight.

The Society’s social media will focus throughout the week on content that helps journalists minimize harm in their work. This blog will host guest posts on several days about the subject. The Code’s supporting documents will be introduced in the coming days. The Society will host Twitter chats related to the topic of harm, too.

We also hope that journalists and non-journalists will contribute to the conversation by interacting with the Society’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. As someone who often receives emails and calls about various journalism missteps, I know people have a lot to contribute to the discussion.

While the emphasis of the week is on minimizing harm, journalists should not simply shy away from sensitive or uncomfortable subjects to achieve that goal. Instead, they should be reminded after this week that all stories need to be responsibly executed.

As I often tell people when I speak, journalists are invited into people’s homes and personal lives throughout the day in print, digital and broadcast form. Journalists should not abuse that privilege. They should be like any other guest and be respectful of their hosts.

To get started, I’d like to invite you to read the latest Quill cover story by ethics committee co-vice chair Mónica Guzmán here: http://bit.ly/1EWGYjL. In the story, Monica tackles some of the emerging ethical issues journalists should watch for when reporting stories.

Also, check out the latest “From The President” by Dana Neuts, and my “Ethics Toolbox.”


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee. He is a journalist in New York City.

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CBS’s 60 Minutes Airs Graphic Footage

People who tuned into CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday night watched “the most disturbing footage in its 47-year history,” according to the network.

The footage was part of a segment presented by Scott Pelley, the anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News. The  segment focused on a 2013 sarin gas attack near the Syrian city of Damascus. The U.S. estimates that the attack killed an estimated 1,429 civilians. About a third of the deaths were children, according to CBS.

I often highlight journalism missteps on this blog, but – in this case – I’d like to applaud CBS for explaining why it decided to show such graphic footage, which included images of  seizures, vomiting and respiratory failure.

“We just wanted to stop and show it to the world so that people can understand the hideousness of this weapon,” Pelley says in an article explaining the decision to air the footage.

While it’s not an often cited principle, the Society’s Code of Ethics says ethical journalists should “explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”

In fact, the Code elevates the idea under the tenet of “be accountable and transparent,” which explains that “ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.”

By explaining its choice to the public, CBS shows that it put thought into what viewers would be exposed to during the broadcast.

The Poynter Institute‘s Al Tompkins has a detailed explanation of CBS’s decision here: http://bit.ly/1Ixjf8N

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