Are you listening?
Every day we read posts and articles online that fringe on — or cross-over the line of, being illegal by people playing “citizen journalists”. Ethics are something we think little of these days especially in the realm of our digital world.
What Is Citizen Journalism?
Put simply, citizen journalism is private individuals reporting information. According to About.com,
That information can take many forms, from a podcast editorial to a report about a city council meeting on a blog. It can include text, pictures, audio and video. But it’s basically all about communicating information of some kind.
Mark S. Zaid, a Washington, D.C. attorney who has handled several high-profile defamation cases says,
“The Internet has emboldened people to believe they can write anything they want about anyone at anytime without any evidence or attempt to investigate and no matter how defamatory the assertions might be. The level of social responsibility has suffered significantly.”
This isn’t another rant about the things we say to one another online; this is instead about the things we do to one another online and the real life damage that can come of it. This is also about what we accept as “news” and how we carelessly overlook the validity of what is being propagated before we jump on a bandwagon. Sometimes the difference is just knowing there is a difference.
Can a “citizen journalist” really do it right?
Who is responsible if they get it wrong?
Being A Citizen Journalist
Because corporate media has an agenda besides aggregating real news, countless “alternative” and “niche” venues have cropped up online and elsewhere to try to fill the gaps. The standards we see are not always those we would expect and the virility of the Internet only exacerbates this growing problem.
If you are “just a blogger” or a new writer unattached to a big publication, you can still be the first to report on a big or otherwise important story. News is everywhere, but not everything is news and you need to be able to discern the difference. Riding on current events is not that difficult, but you have to decide how you want to be perceived and whether you care about your own credibility or not. If not, then find a different game to play because news has the power to affect anyone even when the news is embellished, over-sold or under-reported.
Are you picking up the phone or otherwise directly seeking information from parties involved in whatever you are covering or are you regurgitating information readily found on the internet or television and re-presenting it?
In trying to get news out first, things are fluid and initial “facts” can and sometimes do turn out to be false. Over-reporting a developing story, aka jumping the gun, is assumptive writing and can be more harmful than good. Additionally, vetting your information is imperative; your sources need to be credible and your documented facts verifiable.
Egos & Opinions
We all have opinions and it is difficult to report on anything without our opinions getting in the way. That’s just human nature, but we need to be able to have checks and balances on ourselves the same way we do on others. When injecting our opinion into a news piece it becomes an editorial and many will not find it credible, unless of course they share your opinion.
Facts should never become secondary to our opinions.
Our individual personalities can also be our worst adversary. The voice from which we write is the persona we put out there. Are we doing ourselves a favor by how we present? Maybe, Maybe not.
While there is much room in entertainment media to have personality, when it comes to “news”, less can be more. Sarcasm rarely has a place in real news.
Free Speech or Libel?
Can we record anything we want? Is it OK to post or otherwise publish or report on what we record to public platforms for the world to see? Many ‘citizen journalists” think it is OK, but according to the Digital Media Laws,
If you are recording someone without their knowledge in a public or semi-public place like a street or restaurant, the person whom you’re recording may or may not have “an objectively reasonable expectation that no one is listening in or overhearing the conversation,” and the reasonableness of the expectation would depend on the particular factual circumstances. Therefore, you cannot necessarily assume that you are in the clear simply because you are in a public place.
Federal Wiretapping Laws are different in each state. In California, it is a two-party or “all consent” law where everyone being recorded must be aware of and give consent to the fact they are being recorded. In other states only the person recording has to know a recording is in progress. That being said, these laws rarely cover video only and are geared to protect where recordings are of or include audio.
“The whole controversy with the basketball [Sterling] owner. That was an illegal recording if he didn’t consent.” says attorney Zaid.
In a technology age where almost everyone has a cell phone equipped with camera and video capability, the average person is a target of the whims of strangers, i.e. the citizen journalist. Someone doesn’t even need to be the actual subject of what is being highlighted to be captured in an image or video by default. What if it’s children’ playing in the park, walking through a store or running through the sprinklers in their front that is captured?
Parents seem to be of two-minds on the potential issue of exploitation of their children…
“I would go for blood, and bleed them of all profits. Even in public schools and at the parks and rec, you have to sign [a release]to have your child’s photo released or used in literature and media.” ~ Losha Jackson, stay-at-home mom.
“I have to disagree 100%. If my kid is incidental to the video – he happened to be in the background – I have no problem with it being posted. I have no problem with them making money off it. We are all extras in the movie of someone else’s life. Not only that, but mandating it by law is adding another layer to the nanny state that is entirely unnecessary.” ~ Alyssa Penman, mother and business women
“I wouldn’t be happy, with all the crazies out there, I wouldn’t want my kids on video for just anyone to see.. especially since I don’t know the person or what the purpose of the video is for.” ~ Audrina Heffner, military wife, stay-at-home mom
What if someone’s address or license plate — unrelated to the story, is visible in an image or video?
What if someone is accused of something they did not do?
And then…with the push of a button it’s all suddenly posted to Facebook, Tweeted and Pinned.
Is this legal?
Is it ethical?
Is it fair, safe or even…nice?
Is it OK to bash businesses just because we can? For example, if you are upset with a business, yet have no proof of any real wrongdoing by said business, is it OK to publicly accuse them of an egregious sin? What if that bashing led to the business being harassed by the misinformed social media followers [and their followers...] of the person doing the bashing and what if the business was losing real business?
Is this kind of salacious “reporting” OK? Are you responsible for the damage you cause?
According to D.C. attorney, Mark Zaid, who handled the case of JFK’s Secret Service Agent who was accused of murdering JFK, as well as defended Ariana Huffington in a case involving allegations of the illicit affairs of President Bill Clinton,
“The individual can be liable. Sounds pretty harmful to me. Hopefully, at some point soon, the law will catch up and allow harmed individuals to recover substantial [intended emphasis] damages in order to send a message that this conduct cannot continue.”
The Internet has made defamation and libel a sometimes losing battle to fight. Website and Facebook page and/or group owners are often immune from litigious wrongdoing by their members or contributors because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act:
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (a common name for Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996) is a landmark piece of Internet legislation in the United States, codified at 47 U.S.C. § 230. Section 230(c)(1) provides immunity from liability for providers and users of an “interactive computer service” who publish information provided by others:
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.
In analyzing the availability of the immunity offered by this provision, courts generally apply a three-prong test. A defendant must satisfy each of the three prongs to gain the benefit of the immunity:
- The defendant must be a “provider or user” of an “interactive computer service.”
- The cause of action asserted by the plaintiff must “treat” the defendant “as the publisher or speaker” of the harmful information at issue.
- The information must be “provided by another information content provider,” i.e., the defendant must not be the “information content provider” of the harmful information at issue.
The good news is, those who are contributing unethical or illegal works can be successfully litigated against. The bad news is, that person could be you.
What dictates of conscience or moral code are you running under?