Citizen Journalism: Understanding Rights and Responsibilities
(Story by Carol Thompson) Professional journalists have few, if any, financial worries if they are sued for defamation. The lawsuits are generally against the news organization with the journalist named as one of the defendants and in most instances legal costs for the journalist are covered by the news organization’s libel insurance policy.
The news organization hires an attorney or attorneys who consult with the insurance company’s attorneys as to how to proceed with the case. The journalist may have to hire a separate attorney to file a “Me Too” clause with the court which generally has a minimal fee and is often paid for by the news organization. The “Me Too” clause is necessary in the event employees of a news organization are called to testify against one another.
The risk of being sued for libel and defamation is substantially greater for citizen journalists, street journalists, guerilla journalists and bloggers. Professional journalists are well trained as to what constitutes libel and defamation and they understand who qualifies as a public figure, a limited public figure and an involuntary public figure. Before any controversial stories are published, a publisher or news director will often have it cleared by a libel attorney, further reducing the chance of litigation.
Suing a news organization or journalist is difficult because the plaintiff has to prove not only defamation, but that the defamation was done with malice. Ironically, the plaintiff does not have to prove what was reported is false; the journalist has the burden of proof to show what was reported is truth. For journalists, who are required to document, keep telephone logs, and fact-check, it’s not burdensome to prove truth.
For the citizen journalist or blogger, the burden of proof becomes more cumbersome if the citizen hasn’t followed the same news gathering and writing procedures that a professional journalist is trained and required to do.
The popularity of citizen journalism, blogging, and other forms of disseminating news has resulted in more SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) cases. According to the Christian Science Monitor, between 2004 and 2008, there have been 159 court actions against citizen journalists for libel and other causes of action, resulting verdicts totaling $18.5 million. Some cases are settled out of court for undisclosed awards.
The Digital Medial Law Project sponsored by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society offers free online legal guidance for bloggers as well as a threats page where visitors can search lawsuits.
Citizen journalism goes beyond the printed or broadcast word. It can also include “on the scene” reporting. Professional journalists carry a press pass which often gives access to otherwise restricted areas and information. Citizen journalists, however, can be charged with government obstruction or trespassing if they access the same areas.
Such was the case of Lloyd Jordan, who was taking photographs during the 2011 Occupy Cincinnati protest. While other protesters were arrested for trespass, Jordan was arrested for disorderly conduct, public intoxication and obstructing official business.
Jordan argued that he was a citizen journalist documenting the protest when he photographed a couple of undercover officers sitting in an unmarked police vehicle next to the park. The officers got out of the vehicle, arrested the 36-year-old and took his camera, Jordan said. He denied being drunk, according to Cincinnati.com.
Jordan’s charges were subsequently dismissed, however, he filed a federal lawsuit in 2012 claiming his First Amendment rights had been violated. Jordan dropped his case last fall after the city agreed to pay him $40,000. The city also agreed to put in writing its police procedure when the public is taking pictures.
As more and more citizen journalists face legal action, the best defense is to know the rights and responsibilities of news gathering, blogging, and social media. Until the laws are addressed, those participating in citizen journalism will remain vulnerable. (Image: Flickr | Keng Susumpow)