As this class is title Journalism & Law, it’s understood that a journalist’s job is to newsgather. However, in today’s day and age, regardless of whether you’re a certified journalist or not, there are still times when access is limited to potentially newsworthy documents, records, people and places. With that said, a journalist must understand what is public and what is not, and what they have access to, what they don’t have access to and how to handle a situation where they are not granted access to something when they are legally allowed to.
First and foremost, while some newsgathering protection exists, the First Amendment does not guarantee the press a constitutional right of special access to information not available to the public generally. Furthermore, the courts have generally held that journalists have the same degree of access as any person. To put this into perspective, I, a 20-year old college student has the same degree of access as Anelia in the eyes of legal system.
Where do journalists stand in regards to access to property? Well, although journalists and bloggers may find information online and conduct interviews by phone and email, being where news events occur remains a crucial part of reporting. Absent a First Amendment right to gather news, journalists may not be allowed to enter public, quasi-public or private land or buildings. On the other hand, what happens if the event occurs on public property?
In regards to access to public property, generally, journalists have the same right as anyone. Police and other public safety officials may order individuals, including the press, to stay away from a crime scene or other event if their presence could take it difficult for officials to carry out their duties. In fact, those who disobey this lawful order may be arrested for interfering with police functions.
However, what defines something as “making it difficult for officials to carry out their duties”? Because of this law’s murky meaning, public safety officials do not have an unlimited right to prevent journalists and others from observing a crime scene.
For example, if a television news photographer, standing on public property, used a bright light to film police taking suspects from a robbery scene, and the police demanded the photographer to hand over the camera, who is obeying and disobeying the law here?
Well, if the officers didn’t prove how the light or camera interfered with their duties, the officers, in the eyes of the law, violated the photographer’s First Amendment rights. This concept applies if the police were to arrest someone recording a crime scene with a cell phone in a public park. So, as long as you’re on public property, and not effecting officer’s duties, you have the right to be a journalist, regardless of what the officer’s may say. As a journalist, this is a vital fact that you must understand as not understanding it can either get you in trouble or limit you from getting fully-legal, public and important information.
If something is on private property, as mentioned earlier, the rights of a journalist are no different than any other individual. In fact, trespassing is a common journalist mistake. Permission to enter a property may be given or denied only by the owner of the property or a resident. This is why law enforcement must obtain a search warrant to have the legal authority to enter a property.
Luckily, there is a concept called a ride-along, which is the practice of journalists and other private citizens accompanying government officials, usually law enforcement, as they carry out their duties. This practice is vital for a journalist as it provides them with material for stories or program segments while also benefitting the officer as they receive greater public visibility. However, a series of rulings weighing the media’s First Amendment rights against resident’ has significantly limited news media access, thus making the concept of a “ride-along” not nearly as popular as it once was.
Lastly, journalism is a journalist’s way of living. This means they must do everything they can to receive information, even if that means repeatedly asking questions and being nuisance. However, where is the line drawn between a journalist doing their job and harassment?
The occurrence of harassment by journalist brought forth a concept know as tortious newsgathering, which is defined as the use o reporting techniques that are wrongful and unlawful and for which the victim may obtain damages in court. A word that is commonly linked to this concept is paparazzi, where those journalists tend to stalk, follow and disrupt celebrities.
As you can see, although journalism is how a journalist makes a living, a journalist must also understand where they stand in the eyes of law. Unfortunately, sometimes a degree in journalism doesn’t differentiate you from another random and less-qualified individual. Luckily, educating yourself on your rights as a journalist and when they are being violated can make your job much easier and make you a more effective journalist in the long run.