Legal challenges facing online journalists

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This is a guest post by Ed Walker . It is also published on his blog.

Had some media law refresher training this morning. It was tough going back three years and trying to remember specific cases but the best bit of the session were the debates about the challenges now faced by journalism when it comes to online and the law.

The web is moving quickly and with certain acts dating back to to the last century, you won’t find mention of Facebook in the legal statements. First things first, if you’re unsure about media law go and grab a copy of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists. You won’t regret it.

The three main things we discussed were dealing with breaking news online, and in particular breaking crime news, the use of content from social media sites (particularly images) and commenting on stories by users.

Breaking news online and the dangers

A crime has happened. The Police are on the hunt for two men who have raided the local betting shop. They are armed. You have the basic details and after confirming you’ve got it online. The headline screams out ‘Armed raid at betting shop’ and you’ve got an image of the smashed in door of the betting shop. No arrests have been made. Do you turn the comments on the story? You’ll likely just end up with a load of hearsay that will become obsolete once the Police make arrests but you might also get some extra details, you might stumble upon an eyewitness.

A few hours later and the Police force issued stills of the men they are looking for from the CCTV and give more accurate descriptions. You run these images in full with a big appeal for information from the Police. You create this as a separate article and through your keyword tagging the articles become ‘related’ in your content management system.

You leave the old article in the content management system and overnight the Police name the two men they are looking for and release mugshot images of them. You create a new article and run these images, again this story joins your ‘related stories’ list.

The arrests are made and you’ve still got all the information up on your site. Three articles, all with varying levels of detail and images. Possibly some video of the CCTV and a load of comments from readers. Charges are made and eventually, the trial will start and all this content will be in your archive and might start showing up in the related stories column.

Solution? Have one article and keep that updated. Avoid creating new articles if possible. Keep an eye on pictures/video and remove when no longer relevant. Avoid any compromising photos, just use straight up headshots. Ensure your CMS provides a ‘last updated’ date and timestamp somewhere on the article.

Use of content from social media sites

Facebook and Twitter. A goldmine of information and content, but a legal minefield? There’s not many tests cases out there in terms of using content from social media sites. We had an example of taking a photo from a social networking site of a 17-year-old girl who had died, but the photo showed her drinking alcohol.

Now the dead can’t sue for defamation but the mother would probably not be best pleased to see a smiling photo of her now-dead daughter with a glass of champagne in her hand. Plus, who owns the copyright to the photo?

Solution? We decided we’d run the photo, but probably crop out the alcohol aspect. Or try to find a more suitable photo. In terms of copyright, it’s a tricky one and does seem standard journalist practice now to rip photos from websites despite the copyright resting either with the social network or the user who uploaded the photo.

Commenting on stories

The elephant in the room. Do you post-moderate or pre-moderate? Do you have someone monitoring comments all-hours? Do you let people comment on every story? Do you close comments after a set period of time? Or is it just a free-for-all and it’s the Internet damnit and we can’t control it. Do you let journalists engage in the comments and the debate, or do you tell them to steer clear?

Solution? We couldn’t reach one. But we were sure that media websites benefit massively from having comments on stories – but for court stories the comments should be turned off. We felt more needed to be done to educate people commenting on the idea of ‘fair comment’ and how what they said needed to be based on facts, an honest opinion, without malic and in the public interest. We felt it was important for journalists to be able to respond to comments and engage with the debate as journalism is becoming a two-way process.

Image credit to Eric E Johnson

It was a very interesting morning. The above is just a taster but any of your experiences relating to media law and online journalism would be welcomed in the comments below.

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