Dr. Kathy Olson, media law expert, discusses law as applied to journalism

Last Wednesday, Dr. Kathy Olson, law professor at Lehigh University, came to our online journalism class to discuss issues relevant to journalists such as libel, privacy, and copyright. She specifically focused on how these issues impact online journalism.

According to her presentation, libel can be defined as a false statement of fact published by the defendant that hurts the plaintiff’s reputation. By this definition, the statement would have to have been proven false; the defendant would have to prove actual malice, meaning either he/she knew it was false and published it anyway or he/she had a reckless disregard for the truth (negligence in determining whether or not it was true).

In the field of journalism, journalists must ensure before stories are published that information about public figures is true; they cannot be careless about the truth of a statement before it is published.

Privacy is another matter that journalists must seriously consider before they publish stories. All individuals are guaranteed a right to privacy, which is mandated in the U.S. Constitution.

Respecting individuals’ privacy means that journalists should not intrude individuals’ private space. Journalists should consider the newsworthiness of the information that they are disclosing to the public. They should also consider the four torts recognized by most states:

  1. Intrusion upon seclusion or solitude, or into private affairs;
  2. Public disclosure of embarrassing private facts;
  3. Publicity which places a person in a false light in the public eye; and
  4. Appropriation of name or likeness

These torts summarize privacy rights of private and public figures.

Copyright is another area journalists must be aware of in order to avoid publishing any content of which they are not the sole owner. Thus, they must be creative and only print and/or distribute material that belongs to them.

For example, a journalist cannot write a news story about an event and then provide a picture that someone else took for a different story. If a journalist, for instance, was writing a story about 9/11 or related to terrorism and incorporated a picture of firefighters raising the flag which was taken by another journalist shortly after the terrorist attacks, they would be liable for suit.

The presentation, however, makes note of four fair use factors, factors that permit limited use of copyright material without permission from the original owners.

These factors are the purpose of the use, the nature of the work being used, the relative amount of the work being used, and the impact of the use on the potential value of the copyrighted work.


The first factor considered seeks to determine whether the new work has added anything valuable to the original work. The purpose of the use can be illustrated by considering parodies, such as Weird Al Yankovic’s covers of popular songs. Weird Al’s covers are not simply copyrighted works that he takes ownership of but rather they are intended to parody the original works by adding new lyrics to familiar beats.

The second factor considered is the source being used. Factual sources can be used more than fictional works because fiction is more original; thereby, the original owner has a greater right to their own creative works of fiction.

The third factor considered is the amount of the copyrighted work being used. If a small portion of a copyrighted work is used, however, it must not be the most memorable or original aspect of the work.

The fourth factor considered is the impact the use will have on the original artist. This factor considers the influence the use will have on the market as well.

Overall, journalists must know the rights they are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution while also being aware of factors which could ultimately allow them to be sued. They should consider whether information is libelous or intrudes on the privacy rights of individuals. They should also be careful about which pictures, videos, and other media they use to make sure that they do not copyright original works without permission.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s