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Three Legal Issues Journalists Face – and How to Avoid Them

Whether a Pulitzer Prize-winner for the New York Times, a blogger with a well-loved website, or an on-air reporter at a local news station, journalists are all governed by the same ethics and laws. Doing “whatever it takes” to get the story can be the mark of a good journalist, but only to a certain extent. There are some legal lines that shouldn’t be crossed.

“There are a lot of legal issues a journalist can face,” says Christy Foley, a broadcast journalist-turned-lawyer who has worked for ABC Sports, ESPN, and NBCUniversal. “Journalists need to know what rights they have as reporters when it comes to freedom of speech.”

Foley – currently a certified mediator for Florida’s county court system and a course director in Full Sail University’s New Media Journalism Master’s program – pursued a degree in law after she found herself frequently reviewing licensing packages as a broadcast journalist. She fell in love with the legal side of the industry and went on to represent filmmakers, musicians, and other professionals on their licensing, contract, and performance agreements. Below, she shares three common legal issues journalists face, and how to best avoid them.

Copyright and Intellectual Property

The easiest way to avoid copyright issues: don’t use an image without proper permission and credit. “I was at a station once where a journalist used an image she found online and had no rights to use,” says Foley. “The station ended up having to pay the photographer a lot of money; more than they ever would have paid to license the image in the first place.”

Good reporters must track down information for a story themselves: “You need to be out there in the field, getting the interviews, talking to people, and taking your own photos,” says Foley, “or you must credit whoever did go out there and make the effort to get the story.”

Bloggers must be especially diligent to avoid copyright issues – they can’t just take a photo from Google Images and post it on their own site without permission.

Invasion of Privacy

“Anything that’s out there in the public, you’re welcome to report on,” says Foley, who teaches Research & Investigative Skills Development and Social Media & Online Community Engagement in Full Sail’s New Media Journalism Master’s program. “But you must stay on public property unless you’re invited on to private property, otherwise you’re trespassing.”

This is often why celebrities file lawsuits against tabloids and other publications claiming invasion of privacy. Those leaked photos of a celebrity sunbathing nude? If a photographer captured them while peering through a fence onto private property, they’re trespassing.


When journalists publish or report on a false statement about an individual, they are defaming them. “You can’t get ahead of yourself and start saying someone is guilty when all of the facts haven’t been confirmed,” says Foley. “You have to make sure you say ‘allegedly,’ or even ‘police are reporting so-and-so…’ Phrases like that really come in handy.”

“I remember I was in the MSNBC control room during a live news broadcast when the London tube bombings went off in 2005, and we were scrambling to call everyone we knew in the London bureau to get people to verify what had happened, because you don’t want to be the last one on the air with the information,” says Foley. “You wind up trickling information to your viewers instead of giving them one complete story.”

The best way to avoid a defamation claim: fact-check everything. “You’re always going to have people who may not like that you report bad things about them,” says Foley, “which is why you have to make sure that you’re covered: check your facts and verify them. If you’re diligent about that then you don’t have to worry about defamation, because you’re not saying anything false.”

Legal issues in journalism is one of the many topics explored by students in the New Media Journalism Master of Arts degree program at Full Sail University. Click here to learn more about Full Sail’s accelerated online programs, and get started on your path to a master’s degree today.

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