Every news story hurts someone—or so it is often said.
This claim may not be totally true, but certainly most news stories have the potential to cause difficulty for individuals, even if the story is as simple as reporting a traffic violation. In our society, we have accepted the idea that some individuals will have to face embarrassment to protect the free press and the open flow of information. The law does, however, provide remedies for people who suffer unjustly at the hands of news reporters.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF CARELESSNESS
You can be sued and your station can be sued if you cause undeserved problems for people through what you say or show in your newscast. If you lose, the plaintiff is likely to be awarded large sums of money.
Television news people hold great responsibility. They hold the power to ruin lives with a word or a picture. Therefore, each word and each picture must be carefully chosen.
It only takes one mistake. The one day you are slightly careless could be the day your work lands in court.
The consequences of a news story are easy to understand. Suppose you he on the evening newscast that your neighbor is accused of rape, or perhaps stealing from an employer. You are likely to reconsider your relationship and alter the way you interact with the neighbor. A typical television newscast is seen and heard by a minimum of tens of thousands of people, if not by millions, so your neighbor's other acquaintances may be doing the same thing. These actions represent serious damage to your neighbor's quality of life. Although these consequences may not seem inappropriate for a rapist or thief, what if the story is not true? The individual facing the charges may have been another person with the same first and last names, but a different middle name and different address, who worked at an entirely different company from your neighbor. You can see why the neighbor might want to recover a financial judgment to help compensate for lost business, a damaged reputation and the emotional pain and suffering of the experience—not to mention the possible desire for revenge. For the individual who is erroneously identified in connection with a crime, the mistake can harm the person's reputation as much as if the charges were true. The follow-up story that clears the subject's name, however, never seems to carry the weight of the initial story.
In another scenario, the reporter may accurately name the person who was charged, but the individual may turn out to be innocent. The charges may be dropped when officials realize the mistake—or the case may proceed through trial, where the person is acquitted. Because arrests, indictments, charges and court proceedings are public record, the courts will protect reporters from legal liability when they report truthful information from legally obtained public records. Our judicial system refrains from punishing the media for accurately reporting information from public documents.
Reporters need to understand the legalities surrounding their jobs to stay out of court, but they must also hold to moral standards. Morality and legality are not the same, and there can be a lot of difference between what is legal and what is right.
LEGAL VERSUS ETHICAL
Celebrities and public officials have a very difficult time winning lawsuits, and publishers and their atiorneys know it, so public people often just accept exaggerated, embarrassing or even false stories as part of the territory of being well-known. Stories about celebrities and elected officials that falsely accuse them of drug abuse, sex crimes and even murder are not uncommon. Stories in the sensational tabloid television programs and magazines that we discussed in Chapter 1 often provide no evidence—just a claim. These unsupported accusations appear, are discussed for a short while and then the story dies. We seldom hear about related lawsuits, because the publisher or broadcaster most likely has legal protection in presenting these stories. These tabloid papers and television programs masquerade as news and push the limits of the law, ignoring ethical considerations. If there is a legal loophole, the story runs, even if the writer has serious doubts about its accuracy. Sadly, the story sometimes runs even if the writer knows it is false.
If there's a source who says a presidential candidate used cocaine or who accuses the president of murder, the tabloid media may run the story based on the one source. The writer may know for certain that the source is not trustworthy or may at least be skeptical. Legally, however, the story may be safe, because the writer can claim to have believed the source. We'll talk more about the difference in legalities in reporting on public people and private people later, but the point here is that reporting some things may be legally sound, but may not be the right thing to do.
This country's tradition of protecting speech and press often protects reporters who make big mistakes, and sometimes it protects them even when the reporting is totally irresponsible. This chapter is not intended to show you how to use loopholes in the law for protection against making mistakes, but, instead, to show you ways to be more careful in your work.
One way to ensure that a story is both legally and ethically sound is to practice balance and fairness. Fairness means giving both sides of a story, or maybe more than two sides. If someone accuses a candidate of doing something wrong, make sure the candidate gets to give the other side of the story. If the city manager is being interviewed and accuses a contractor of doing a bad job, get the contractor's comments. Some stories that may not seem to have another viewpoint do, in fact, need balance. For example, if a congressional representative introduced a bill that would require prayer each morning in public schools, many people might rejoice to hear of the proposal, and the reporter might be prepared to interview the representative for further details on the bill. A deeper look at the issue, however, would reveal a long legal history overturning such bills, and most attorneys could explain the opposing viewpoint. Good reporters attempt to present a variety of viewpoints so that the members of the public can make their own decisions about which arguments to believe.
Even though the First Amendment guarantees free speech and a free press, it does not protect you if you make mistakes in certain areas. In the area of libel, judgments are awarded to plaintiffs when information that is both false and damaging to a reputation is published or broadcast. In addition, the media must (meaning, it's a legal requirement or legal standard) exhibit some level of fault in getting and presenting the information—ranging from simple negligence to publishing information while knowing that it is false. Plaintiffs can win invasion of privacy suits even when truthful information is published or broadcast. Privacy suits often relate to information gathered on private property, the use of someone's identity for commercial purposes, a misleading use of information or information that is considered both embarrassing and very private. Copyright law violations involve using the creations of others, in words, pictures or music, without proper permission. Other areas that commonly involve reporters in legal issues relate to access to public information or efforts at gathering news that may bring the reporter into conflict with the court system.