www.legal-issues.com

The freedom the internet now provides to journalists and the general public alike allows information and media to spread around the world with ease and speed. However, there are many legal issues and dangers for journalists that span both print and the internet, which become far more complicated and easy to forget when working with the world wide web.

Copyright is designed to protect intellectual property. For example, if a newspaper wants to use photographs of a particular event, the photographer must agree to let them use it, and in many cases, sign over the copyright. This allows the newspaper to use the image freely without risk of being sued. However, since the rise of the internet and advances in technology, photos can be uploaded, shared, and downloaded from almost anywhere in the world.

white-copyright-copyleft-symbol-sign-women_designThis leads to complications as many people glance over the fact this material is still under copyright; the most common misconception being that anything on Google Images is available to use freely. It is also easy to forget that when uploading pictures in particular, you sign over the use of the image to the site hosting it (such as Facebook) which you can inadvertently agree to when signing up to the website. If the images are being used under ‘fair dealing’, such as for school projects where no profit is being made there are usually no issues, however if the picture is intended for commercial use then organisations can be faced with huge costs.

In a spell working for a student-run music website, I encountered an issue just like this; a cover photo we had used for one of our feature articles was under copyright and we had been oblivious the whole time. After being faced with a potentially huge fine, which with being students and all, we had absolutely no method of paying, we had to take extra care when sourcing images on the internet and painstakingly browsing through Flickr to find images free for use.

We had to fight hard to show we had no intention of making money from the images and it was purely a student website, and it was scary to see how easily mistakes such as this could be made.

Microblogging and blogs now allow the masses to get their voice heard and opinions out into the public domain. The freedom of the press is allowed because there are certain journalistic codes of practice that people are expected to abide by; but these become harder to enforce and content becomes harder to regulate when it is the general public posting information on these sites.

Users are allowed honest (and sometimes, harsh) opinion and fair comment with regards to others, but this should avoid attacking another person and should be based on factual evidence.

As Twitter and other blogs can reach a massive audience, inaccuracies, mistakes, or releasing potentially damaging information can be very costly, as it can cause defamation and be deemed libellous. Everyday bloggers are now seeing the potential threat of libel, as the information can be passed around the internet in seconds.

Sally Bercow is one such example of how Twitter use can lead to allegations of libel, as it shows how hints and jokes can be defamatory because of the amount of followers she had amassed. The unsubtle allegation that Lord McAlpine was guilty of sexual abuse cause damage to his reputation and distress, and finally ended in Bercow paying an undisclosed fee in damages.

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Despite these dangers of the internet in modern journalism, I feel there is no better way of engaging the public in issues that are in their interests.

Since a large percentage of the population are on Twitter or have access to the internet simply through their mobile phone, it is the best way to spread information and let the press fulfill its role as the fourth estate.

The barriers between journalists and the public are broken down through these technologies, and whilst there are issues with copyright and libel, it is fair to say that most methods of publishing online are flexible in editing their content and allow scope for reply.

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