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Lessons on media law

Posted: Oct. 4, 2016 | Tags: media law

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Illustration by Ben Fall, IRW


From bias and free speech to copyright and censorship, issues in media law dominated a daylong session at the National Press Club recently. 

“Media Law for Journalists: A legal workshop and editorial roundtable” was designed to teach journalists and journalism students how to protect themselves from libel accusations, violations of privacy and reputational harm. The program was run by the Media Law Resource Center, which is hosting a similar session at Boston University Oct. 17.

The first question on the agenda: "How do journalists get into trouble for their content?" Tips from the experts follow:

Tip No. 1: Remember that you are responsible for what you re-publish.

Just because another journalist tweets a breaking headline, doesn’t mean it’s true. Always verify facts and do your own research. As a journalist, you have a duty to do extensive research. However, website owners and publishers are not responsible for third-party content. You can’t be held liable for comments on an article or photo.

Tip No. 2: Beware of juxtaposition.

Choose your words carefully. The way you word something can change the meaning and potentially make a pair of facts libelous. Also, never quote a defamatory statement from an anonymous source because in court you will not be able to prove it’s true.

Tip No. 3: Corrections can’t save you.

Corrections don’t immunize you from a lawsuit, but they might minimize damages. A correction makes you look more forthcoming; it shows you can admit that you were wrong. 

The Terminology 

In order to avoid breaking the law, you must understand it. 

Libel covers any false statement that harms a reputation.

Negligence means there was a failure to responsibly report a story. You can fight negligence by proving that you acted as a responsible journalist. This includes doing research and having multiple, reliable sources for your information. 

Malice means that the publisher had serious doubts about the validity of information and published anyway. This is what public figures have to prove in a libel case — actual malice — because they are subjecting themselves to public criticism by being in the public eye.   

Intrusion, trespass and privacy

Jay Ward Brown and Mara Gassmann discussed how journalists can avoid being intrusive, violating trespass laws and rights to privacy. 

Trespass can include both going onto or interfering with property without permission and exceeding the scope of permission. For example, if you have permission to enter a grocery store as an employee, you don’t necessarily have permission to investigate and report their food supply. 

Intrusion means invading a zone in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Be aware of “assumed privacy.” People in their living rooms should be able to assume they have privacy even if you have a telephoto lens to peek inside. However, motive matters. If you were to photograph a crime with that telephoto lens or an event that concerns the public interest, newsworthiness could outweigh privacy concerns. 

One example they cited: The case of Bollea v. Gawker, in which Terry Gene Bollea, the professional wrestler known as “Hulk Hogan,” sued Gawker Media for publishing videos of a sex tape involving Bollea and Heather Clem, who was not his wife. In March 2016, a jury found Gawker Media liable and awarded Bollea $140 million in damages. Three months later, Gawker filed for bankruptcy protection and put itself up for sale, subsequently selling its assets to Univision, which announced it was closing the operation, though wasn't included in the deal. The legal battle continues, and another hearing is expected later this month.

The Gawker case may be an extreme example, but how do you protect yourself? Here’s additional advice from the center's team:

Know the law

Some states are “two-party states” and require two-party consent before recording information. Know the laws for your state and where your subject is at the time of the interview. 

States have individual shield laws concerning whether a journalist could be required to reveal an anonymous source. 

If you’re in a public meeting fair, you have the right to a fair and accurate reporting assumption.

If you get a subpoena, respond immediately.

Defend yourself

Media liability insurance covers individuals and businesses that create or disseminate content. This includes newspapers, television stations, radio stations, film producers and publishers.

The price of the policy depends on the size of the business, the risk, the nature of media content and whether you were insured before the publication.

The Media Law Resource Center suggests connecting with lawyers before any legal action occurs, just to be prepared. 


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