Students studying journalism should develop a wide range of essential abilities, including interviewing, writing, recording video and conveying digital stories on social media. But did you know that knowing the law is a necessary ability for any successful journalist? Journalists should be aware of and consider the daily challenges and dilemmas they encounter while breaking a news story, from copyright and libel laws to ethical guidelines.
Ailsa Chang, co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” provided insight into the value of journalists having a solid grasp of the law and how it affects our journalism during a recent meeting we had with her in Chicago.
Alisa was a lawyer before she became a journalist. For years, Ailsa Chang said she fluctuated between law and journalism, each field battling it out for priority in her career. But as an award-winning journalist for NPR, she has finally found a way to weave together her two professional interests.
As she pointed out, there are a variety of legal issues that encompass journalism, but the most frequent questions are on matters of First Amendment rights, libel, privacy, emotional distress, news gathering, intellectual property and the regulation of the media. Here are the key legal considerations for journalists:
Avoiding going to jail by prejudicing an ongoing criminal case: Studying contempt of court, which teaches you how to avoid “trial by media” and a possible two-year jail sentence, is very important for a journalist to avoid any unnecessary legal dilemmas.
Research skills and analytical thinking: As a lawyer or as someone aware of the job of a lawyer, researching hundreds of documents and analyzing details will be a good benefit to doing better journalism.
Writing in-depth pieces and summarizing heaps of information into more concise pieces: As Chang explained, the tough job of a lawyer is also about writing in-depth investigations in court cases and making sure the content is understandable for the public too.
Avoiding a huge libel bill: If you make unjustified attacks on someone’s reputation—for example, by wrongly saying they are a dodgy businessman or that a reality TV star has a substance abuse problem—it might not only cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars but also your job. Chang underlined how crucial it is for journalists to know when and how to criticize those who deserve it.
Allowing everyone a private life: Celebrities, sports stars, and politicians use privacy laws to avoid true stories about them being exposed. But as a journalist, being aware of privacy laws is important to find the balance in your reporting and to determine when you can safely look into someone’s private life in the public interest.
Safely using social media: Journalists are expected to post on various platforms to tell and promote their stories. But you can get into just as much legal hot water on Twitter or Instagram as you can writing for a mainstream newspaper or magazine. Not only that, but also to avoid online harassment, safe social media use is a vital skill a journalist should have.
Chang closed her remarks by noting that law is a subject journalists will need to continue to educate themselves in.