Handbook of Independent Journalism (7-End) : Ethics and Law

One of the most common kinds of legal issues journalists face is libel or defamation. In the United States, defamation is a statement of fact that is substantially false about someone who can be identified and that tends to injure that person’s reputation.

Defamation is called “libel” when the statement is published and “slander” when it is broadcast, but the basic parameters are the same.

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Generally speaking, if a statement is true, it cannot be defamatory. Journalists therefore must confirm independently what their sources say, if those comments could defame another person.

As new technology changes the way journalists do their work, media laws are being reexamined.

At the forefront are questions such as: Should online reporters be granted the same rights and protections as journalists working for established news organizations?

Should those same privileges extend to Internet bloggers? These questions are likely to remain unresolved for some time.

Reporters obviously are subject to other laws that apply to individuals in a given country, such as laws governing privacy.

A journalist who wants access to information cannot enter private property, take documents without permission, or wiretap a telephone and expect to face no legal consequences.

A news organization might decide that some stories are so important they are worth the risk of legal sanctions, but that is a different matter to be decided jointly and carefully by editors, reporters, and management. (*)

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