With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Despite possessing a great deal of power, by no means can journalists do whatever the hell they wish. Journalists also have to navigate the legal minefield and report responsibly, ensuring fair conduct for all involved.


Image Credit: Eric Schwartzman via Flickr

Amongst the countless legal issues that journalists face, lies the danger of user-generated content (UGC). Crowdsourced contributions are almost a guaranteed inclusion either within the newsgathering or reporting process, in 21st Century journalism, which is ever reliant on digital forms. UGC includes user submitted photographs, comments, social media posts, memes and videos. New technologies are expanding the opportunities for citizen journalism and newsgathering, making content sharing easy peasy, with the simple click of a button.

With such key sources of news necessary for successful reportage, at a journalist’s fingertips, journalists can’t afford to ignore the legal challenges that come with using such content.

  • Defamation:

Defamation law protects individuals, groups or companies from damage to their reputation – be it in the form of “lowering them in the estimation of right-thinking members of the public”, or any change in the treatment of that individual or group including ridicule in the workplace or contempt (As per the Defamation Act 2013) – and this allows an individual or individuals to sue where necessary. This exists in two forms: libel (permanent written publication) and slander (the spoken word).

The social media age has proliferated dissemination of user-generated content and this content is shared widely outside of social media, including in hard news journalism and in live newsrooms. The team effort between the public and journalists makes for rich and in many ways, more expositional, reporting.

However, the risk that journalists face when repeating or reposting UGC, is that anything deemed libelous results in the publication or news outlet also being liable for using it. In a report by journalist and media law consultant, David Banks, titled “The Legal Risks of UGC”, it outlines the “Repetition Rule” which states that a claimant could sue the entire chain of people who reproduce and share that libelous material.

The number of libel cases due to the increase in social media use, and thus defamatory statements, rose by 300% in 2014, and is expected to increase exponentially if users, including publications, do not begin to understand the severity of comments made over Twitter, Facebook and the like, and content sent to and used by, news outlets.

  • Copyright:

The use of UGC, unsurprisingly, gives rise to many cases where uncredited and copyrighted words, images or videos are exploited by online publishers or even on television. Banks’ report says that copyright (part of the laws that protect intellectual property) “does not have to be registered [to given works]…no © sign, doesn’t mean you can copy.” Therefore, protection comes from a degree of originality of the work but this has been flouted in some cases.

Twitter has its advantages for newsgathering, but it also highlights a problematic snag in utilising the site for all it offers. Swiping a photo from Twitter to use in a news article or broadcast may land you in hot water. Twitter content, as with other social media content, contrary to popular belief, is not just free game.

One of the most notable copyright infringement cases associated with Twitter, which stresses reading the fine print, is that of photographer Daniel Morel vs. Agence France-Presse and Getty Images. Mr Morel took photos in Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake hit his native country and posted them to his personal Twitter page. The defence violated the Copyright Act when they used Mr Morel’s photos for commercial purposes and were ordered to pay $1.2million in damages to the photographer. Twitter’s terms of service would have allowed retweeting of the images, but AFP flouted these terms posting the images for unrestricted public distribution. This particular case only emphasises the subtleties in the legal challenges that journalists have to contend with.

Although citizen journalism and journalists’ use of UGC, seem like honourable journalistic moves, they are easy but can be potentially costly mistakes to make.

It’s no surprise that UGC can be a bit of a liability in journalistic circles – a risk sometimes journalists consider worth taking. This is where the benefits of holding others accountable have to be weighed up against the legal challenges this proposes. For example, if user-generated content is received by newsrooms from countries where reporting is difficult or banned, journalists have to question the safety of using such material, or is its use for the greater good of society? Journalists are protected if they consider the publishing of controversial material a necessity, and can build a strong defence for their actions “being in the public interest” – a moral dilemma which journalists simultaneously grapple with day-to-day.

Therefore, user-generated content is an unavoidable double-edged sword for journalists – one that will only continue to grow in complexity as journalists persevere with experimental content curation, and new and interactive forms of storytelling.

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