The legal and ethical issues journalists face today

The legal and ethical issues journalists face today

Journalists face various legal and ethical issues among all the other challenges and even dangers that can go along with the job.

If you are considering a career in journalism, it is essential to understand the laws and rules you will be expected to abide by throughout the course of your career. Over the years, there may be more rules and ethical standards added. If you work directly for a media outlet, these rules and ethics may be more apparent than if you are an independent journalist.

Some media outlets may have their own code of ethics that you must abide by in addition to the industry standards. This is why it is a major decision for journalists to decide who they are employed by and whom they choose to sell their freelance work to.

Common legal issues

Here are a few of the common legal issues journalists face:

Journalists must always acknowledge copyright and intellectual property.

As a journalist, you will be doing lots of research on any topic you are covering. There is always background information to add to an article. Finding photographs and charts to enhance your article typically means using the work of others.

Collaborations are great, but credit and permission must always be considered. You may find a photo that you would love to use but cannot because the owner will not permit you. Using any photo without permission is considered using intellectual property without the rights. The intellectual property owner has the right to ask you to remove the photo and may even have grounds for a lawsuit if the photo caused them or their family emotional strife or put them in any danger.

Copyrighted work may allow for some use without permission, but it will vary based on the work and how much you want to use. A good example is the copyright on a book. There is often a message on the copyright page that says what others are allowed to use without permission and instructions for contacting the publisher to request permission for other sharing rights.

If you are doing a major article or review that is beneficial to the other party, it is often easy to get official permission to use bigger quotes and passages from a written work.

Journalists must remember the importance of asking permission before using anything that is not their own intellectual property. Whereas a person or entity may give permission when asked beforehand, they may be less forthcoming if their property is used without their permission and they discover it later. In this case, it is likely they will demand you remove everything they have a legal right to.

Privacy must be respected

There is a big difference between public and private information. If something is public knowledge, then journalists can talk freely about the topic in any article or interview. Journalists can go to places like courthouses and public event centers. Sidewalks and other areas are more examples of where you can gather public information. This is why you see so many reporters gathered in these areas on your local news when there is something major happening.

Entering a privately owned area such as someone’s home or their surrounding property without permission can quickly lead to law enforcement becoming involved and a trespassing charge for the journalist.

While it is not a good idea to just knock on someone’s door, a journalist can do so, but if they are asked to leave, they must do so immediately or they are considered to be trespassing.

If someone refuses to be interviewed or give you information, you must respect their decision. Continuing to pester someone to talk to you can be considered harassment or even stalking in more extreme instances.

Slander and defamation

If you want to make it in the world of journalism, you must make sure that you do not make slanderous or untrue statements just to suit your agenda. This means making good decisions on what to include when others provide information. Publishing statements without any proof to back them up that cause harm to the reputation of others may lead to incredibly damaging lawsuits.

One recent high-profile defamation lawsuit is the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard case. This trial captured a lot of public interest and was covered by a lot of journalists. After an expensive and lengthy case, Heard was found to be liable for defamation and asked to pay millions of dollars in restitution. While this is a case between two individual celebrities, it could have easily been a case between an individual and a media outlet.

CNN was forced to pay out an undisclosed amount of money when they were sued for defamation by a group of Kentucky high school students after they were inaccurately portrayed. The students had a solid case built on facts such as losing scholarships and acceptance to some colleges.

The ethical dilemmas of journalism

Protecting your sources may be noble but there are consequences

Sometimes access to a great source for a story is based on the journalist promising to not reveal the source in any story, report or even in the courtroom. Protecting a source can have very wide-reaching consequences for the journalist.

There have been cases where journalists have been summoned by the judicial system and demanded to give up the source of their information since it pertains to a serious case. In this instance, the journalist faces a very significant ethical dilemma. While keeping their promise may seem like the ethical thing to do from a journalistic point of view, by doing so they may be helping a criminal. In extreme cases, journalists have even been threatened with legal charges such as obstruction of justice.

It is up to the journalist to decide whether it is ethically right to protect their source or give up the information if the situation becomes serious. This is a very tough decision that can have a major impact on the rest of a journalist’s career.

The dilemma of weighing newsworthiness versus privacy

Is a story worth bringing to the public’s attention? Are the individuals and families involved with the story going to be comfortable with what you report or are you sure to cause some level of emotional distress? If a person is not accustomed to being in the spotlight, then someone reporting on their personal life may seem very intrusive or devastating. Going from just being an everyday person living in a suburb to everyone knowing about your hardship or personal disaster is a lot to deal with. People that are accustomed to their privacy and having some control over what others know about them may have a very hard time with strangers acting like they have the right to be involved in their life on any level. Even extra sympathy can be unwanted when it comes from a casual stranger.

Tabloids are a great example of a media outlet that often decides to print personal stories but, in most cases, these stories are about celebrities that expect or even welcome the added attention and publicity. Even tabloids choose to not print some particularly awful stories.

Journalists must ask themselves if a story has true news value and what it adds to public information. Is it just making a spectacle of another person’s misfortune? Does the story carry an important lesson or message?

Handling conflicts of interest can be difficult

Approaching a story without major bias makes for better and more believable journalism. The public always suspects the media of bias, and in some cases, they are absolutely correct. At the same time, when it is obvious, the public at least know this when they choose to read or watch the news outlet in question. Of course, there are always those that just take things at face value and pick a news or media outlet that totally agrees with practically any viewpoint they hold themselves.

Regardless of your personal views, your story will be better if you use facts to back up all statements and present both sides of an issue without making any petty slurs or comments even if you find the other side to be truly detestable.

Other conflicts of interest can occur if an individual or business that you or the company you work for is involved in anything controversial or where they may have an advantage.

For example, if you find out that the CEO of the media company that owns your newspaper through a subsidiary company has been accused of a crime or misconduct, you might choose not to publish anything about it due to the conflict of interest.

Another good example would be if one of your top advertisers was involved in a scandal due to a problem with their product. You may want to be cautious about how any information is portrayed about that advertiser or risk losing their business. If the scandal or problem with a product is bad enough, it may be best to drop the advertiser and take that financial loss rather than be boycotted by a large group of readers. There is no perfect solution in many of these cases.

Give your customer what they want all the time, or include other stories?

News outlets, magazines and newspapers all have a financial interest in offering their readership the exact type of news and stories that they want. This puts journalists in the position of ignoring relevant stories at times if it challenges the viewpoints or interests of their readership.

Should a local or national news outlet ignore a story even if it is newsworthy and of value to the public in favor of another story that is likely to have more reader appeal but lacks the same level of overall substance and importance?

Being asked to keep quiet about a story happens more often than you might think.

Some serious stories, or those that have the potential to have major consequences for someone or a corporation, can lead to attempted bribery or threats to keep quiet. Although taking a bribe is not ethical, there have been plenty of cases where it has occurred. While this type of behavior may remain hidden for quite some time, it has a way of leaking out and potentially causing major damage to readership levels.

Taking a bribe or not publishing a story when asked to by a powerful person or corporation can lead to major distrust among the public.

Remember that bribes are not limited to a situation where cash is exchanged. Not reporting something and knowing that there will be some type of favor or other compensation is ultimately the same thing.

Are you participating in lies by omission?

Not reporting on the whole story ultimately results in ethically misleading journalism. This can happen when a journalist or media outlet intentionally leaves out information that can lead to an opposing opinion to the viewpoint they are trying to highlight. Good examples of this are leaving out part of a response or simply not presenting all the facts.

How facts are presented matters as well. If facts are presented haphazardly, the story can be perceived in a different manner.

Planting positive stories is common practice

Sometimes what appears to be a news story is actually a story that is sponsored by a business or person. Media outlets sometimes display the words “sponsored post” above these articles while others do not. An example of this would be a local paper featuring a story about a specific business that doesn’t appear to have much value beyond being a local highlight piece.

In more blatant cases, the agent of a celebrity or business may reach out to a tabloid or news outlet and take steps to make sure specific positive information is featured in an article or social media. This is a particularly useful tactic when a person or business is facing negative publicity.

Do you have what it takes to be a journalist?

If becoming a journalist is something you have always wanted to do or you have recently realized you have a passion for reporting and writing, you might want to consider earning a Master’s in Journalism Online from a reputable institution such as St. Bonaventure University. Their master’s in digital journalism degree prepares you for a job as a modern journalist using the latest technologies to incorporate video, audio, photography and more into your articles and stories. Offered 100% online, this degree provides the flexibility that working professionals need to pursue further schooling.

Here are some of the characteristics and skills that make a great journalist:

You love to research and uncover the truth

A good news or magazine article can take a lot of research and travel. The article that you read that is 3,000 words long may have taken a journalist months of interviews and research to put together and fact-check.

You have a talent for talking to people from many different backgrounds while being a great listener

Journalists must be good at connecting with others and making them feel comfortable discussing personal and professional matters. This means asking questions in a way that doesn’t put a person on the defensive. Being a great listener is absolutely critical. Interviewees must feel as if you will help them tell their story and that you genuinely care about their situation.

You can handle criticism and keep doing a great job

Journalists must be good at compartmentalizing. This means having a good work-life balance and being able to take criticism. Some journalists make sure to avoid reading a lot of comments related to their work especially if it is syndicated to other news outlets where there tends to be a lot of comments that do not add to the narrative.

As a journalist, you will do rough edits on your own work, but you will also have other editors and bosses at media outlets that you will have to answer to. This means being able to take criticism and sometimes make changes or accommodations in your articles that you may not entirely agree with.


Journalism is a fantastic career opportunity for those who love writing, reporting on current and past events, researching and interacting with people from different backgrounds.

As journalists are responsible for putting a lot of information into the public arena, they must abide by a code of ethics and be careful to follow laws regarding intellectual property and personal privacy, and make sure they tell the truth to the best of their knowledge.

As a journalist, you will be able to help tell the stories of others and sometimes help a lot of people in the process. Journalists regularly bring issues to the public attention that otherwise might be entirely ignored.