Keeping it legal

Social mediums create enormous opportunities for news producers and consumers, they connect the two and provide means for greater depth and breadth of coverage but news organizations and their employees must be wary of the potential legal implications stemming from activities considered normal on social media sites.

For a news organization the same standards that apply to publication in the paper or on the website apply to publication on social networks. Upholding rules regarding sourcing material, avoiding libel and fact-checking are even more important on social networks due to their public and viral nature.

The Information Law Group is currently writing a series of articles on the The Legal Implications of Social Networking for all business and their conclusions apply to equally news organizations. Writers at the Information Law Group developed a simple formula for finding the risks in using social media:

  • the inherent characteristics/capabilities/limitations of the social media platform to be leveraged, PLUS
  • the organization’s specific intended social media strategy and uses, REVEALS
  • the relevant legal issues and level of legal risk present.

Applying this formula to the specific social network of Facebook and a hypothetical news site would look something like:

  • Creating connections (Friends) with whom a user can share images, links, other connections which limits users by promoting open sharing above closed sharing and making it difficult to restrict information to only certain connections while tracking user’s activities around the web; PLUS
  • Connecting reporters, editors, and the rest of the news production team with its readers and potential sources; REVEALS
  • the relevant legal issues and level of legal risk present.

Editors examining the results of the above formula see that they can learn a significant amount of information about consumers through the use of Facebook’s tracking systems. They also see that it is easy for outsiders to see a reporter’s “Friends” and then assemble details about ongoing stories, and confidential sources.

These risks extend beyond the the legal challenges of social media and into the news production process, where exposure of an unfinished story could have legal ramifications. The Legal Implications of Social Networking series is a followup to a white paper published by the Information Law Group and ACE USA, a risk management company. The paper Social Media: The Business Benefits May Be Enormous, But Can the Risks –Reputational, Legal, Operational — Be Mitigated? warns about the accidental loss of “sensitive company information,” which in the case of news organizations includes sources, tips, and stories currently in production.

News outlets utilizing social media, or who desire to use social media, can see these risks and take two approaches: carry on business as usual and hope for the best or scale back their social content to discuss nothing about what is in production. The Washington Post chose to continue to use social media and talk about ongoing stories, Ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton discussed the role of social media  in his June 17, 2011 column. His piece on the Post’s reporting on the release of Sarah Palin’s official emails as governor of Alaska highlighted that the newspaper sought to crowdsource reading and coding the emails and gave insight into the process: “It’s done through a “call-out”: a request in print, online or through social media [emphasis added] for readers of The Post to come forward if they have special knowledge that they can contribute to a story.”

Pexton cautiously highlights the benefits of “call-outs:”

The Post’s interactivity editor, Hal Straus, and his staff are helping reporters use crowd-sourcing in many stories. “It’s an efficient way to gather information,” Straus said. “It’s using a mass technology to do work that ordinarily folks do phone call by phone call.”

He is careful to note that it is only a supplement. Reporters still have to check out the stories and the bona fides of these sources.

Although The Post invites a situation where the competition gets tipped to a story prior to its official release,  Straus and The Washington Post are careful to keep it legal by not frivolously publishing on social media and subjecting the new medium to the same requirements as the old. For a newspaper that requirement, that social media is an extension of existing technologies is critical to safely navigating the social media environment.

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