Ethics and the Law in Journalism

Ethics and the Law in
Key Concepts
Understand the ethical principles of
Understand libel laws and what defenses
journalists have
Words to look up
What is the difference between
ethics and the law?
Laws are what we have to do
Ethics are what we should do
One of the most important things to
understand in journalism.
Libel is the publication of a false statement
that injures someone’s reputation.
This keeps journalists from printing
whatever they want about whoever they
Slander was originally the oral form of libel
(it was spoken, not written) but the two are
so close to one another that slander has
been absorbed into libel. In other words,
they’re the same thing.
How is libel proven?
To sue for libel and win, a plaintiff must
demonstrate a convincing combination of
5 points.
The points…
1. Defamation—this is the spreading of
false reports about someone that injures
that person’s reputation.
2. Identification—the plaintiff must prove
that it is he or she the publication is talking
3. Publication—it has to be given to a third
party. A private letter is not libelous.
4. Fault—this can be either by negligence
or actual malice or reckless disregard.
5. Damages—this means money. It can
be compensatory or punitive.
Defenses against Libel
Truth—plain and simple. If the story is
true then they can’t sue.
Privilege—if it’s said in an arena such as
an open court, then it’s okay to print.
Fair Comment—holds true in opinion
Admission of Error—print a retraction.
How to avoid libel
Check your sources, and try to have more
than one—you must make sure you are
writing from every angle.
Understand criminal procedure and
Edit carefully. A sensitive story should be
edited by several people.
Have a notes policy. Either save all of
them or destroy all of them.
More ways…
Avoid confidential content and editorial
comments in your notes.
Keep a log of your efforts to check out the story.
Always ask for a comment or reaction from the
person you’re writing about. If they give “no
comment” then use that in the story.
Behave professionally and identify yourself as a
Another legal matter:
Invasion of Privacy
4 privacy issues to recognize:
Intrusion—it involves the reporter’s
behavior while gathering the news. It
includes: Misrepresentation; Trespass;
Surreptitious use of a camera or tape
Public Disclosure—includes publication of
accurate information regarded as private.
False Light—Portraying someone
inaccurately to the point that he or she is
embarrassed and reasonable person
would be offended.
Appropriation—Commercial exploitation of
someone’s name or image
Three Ethics rules to live by:
Seek the truth and report it fully as
Act independently.
Minimize harm.
Activity #1:
With a partner, use the internet to
research three U.S. legal decisions that
affected journalism. You can start with the
1735 libel trial of John Peter Zenger.
Activity #2
Look up the First Amendment. What are
the five freedoms discussed?