Law: The Cornerstone of Journalism
Journalism, in general, is a career-choice where each day can offer something completely different from the last. In some instances, you have to use your best judgement and follow your morals, other instances may force you to into an uncomfortable situation, as you need to do so in order to make a living. However, in the end, through everything you have learned so far and everything you will learn in the future, you will find out that fully understanding the relationship between journalism and law is, perhaps, the most important factor in determining the success and longevity of your journalism career.
In your first days, you will quickly find out that although you may hold some privileges, your degree doesn’t grant you any more access to public information than any other person on the face of the earth. In other words, you, me, your dentist, your peers and virtually everyone are equal in the eyes of the law.
However, you will also quickly learn that your work will depend solely on the relationships that you form with others, and that having a quality relationship with others will make your job much easier. In other words, your rapport has a direct correlation with how easy your job as a journalist and how successful your career will be.
With that said, you must protect your rapport at all cost. You must remain ethical, honor source confidentiality and produce your best work at all times. Following these will require lots of hours, lots of late nights, lots of early mornings and even some missed family events. But, as you already should know, a career of journalism isn’t a walk in the park. In fact, it takes a certain type of individual, an individual that emits confidence, positivity, grit, determination and of course, passion.
First and foremost, the saying “work smarter, not harder” relates to virtually all types of careers. However, it is especially true in journalism. You need to understand that nearly all types of information, excluding some, are accessible to the public. Now, they may not be the easiest to find at times, but mostly everything you will need will be classified as public information, meaning that me, you, your dentist and your dentist’s dentist has legal access to it.
For example, by going to http://www.iowacourts.state.ia.us, you can literally search for anyone and find their records in the state of Iowa. As mentioned, this is public information, which means that this service isn’t exclusive to Iowa. In fact, all 50 states offer this, however, the way of retrieving such information may vary from state to state.
For instance, the state of Kansas offers an online service similar to Iowa’s, however, you must pay a fee. Other states don’t offer any online database, so you are required to go to the courthouse directly and ask for the information yourself. Either way, regardless of what state you are in, if you need to find information on someone, understand that you have full access to their personal records and there is no excuse for you not to study up.
Another basic you need to understand is when using a camera. Journalism has evolved over the recent years. In fact, it’s evolved so much that you no longer need to haul around all types of equipment. Now, everything you need can be accessed through your mobile device. Seriously, you have the internet, a notepad, a voice recorder and a camera. What more could you need?
With that said, you also need to make sure that you utilize your cell phone correctly. For example, when you are recording and taking photos, remember to hold your device sideways, not vertically. When you are using your voice recording software for an interview, make sure that the interviewee is aware.
Moving on, as a journalist, you are going to develop friendships, partnerships and professional relationships. However, you also will develop enemies, or in other words, there will be people who just don’t like you or agree with you, whether that be a politician, a colleague or just a random individual.
Regardless of who likes you and who doesn’t, you have one job and that job is to find and report the truth. With that said, there will be times people doubt your story, doubt your evidence or think you are wasting your time on a case. At that point, you need to ignore the noise, follow your gut and do your job.
Ironically, if journalists stopped investigating something because of other people’s opinions, some of the most iconic crimes in U.S. history would have never been solved. A prime example of this would be the massive Roman Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal in Boston back in 2002.
In this situation, the Boston Globe brought in a new editor by the name of Martin Baron. Upon arrival, Baron had one goal, and that goal was to be the best editor possible and make the Boston Globe the best newspaper it could be. Knowing this, he immediately came in and made changes. These changes didn’t appeal to the existing journalists at the Globe, in fact, a lot of them said he was crazy and we’re skeptical of change. Walter Robinson, who was a longtime journalist for the Boston Globe at the time, even told Baron that, “I like the paper as it is,” right to his face.
Although he faced some heat, Baron continued to follow his gut and ignore the opinion’s of others. Baron then uncovered some information about sexual abuse within the Catholic church that involved several priests assaulting young boys. When Baron brought this information to the attention of the journalists, they thought he was crazy to try to go up against the Catholic Church.
Long story short, Baron continued to push this case and assigned tasks to his journalists. They slowly started uncovering more information about the sexual abuse and ultimately published one of the most iconic stories in U.S. History about one of the most powerful organizations in world, the Roman Catholic Church.
However, this lesson isn’t important just because the story got so much feedback, was associated with the Pulitzer Prize and was even made into a movie. The lesson is that since Baron stood his ground, followed his gut and sought after the truth, he was able to uncover and reveal the disgusting truth of thousands of sexual abuse incidents in the Catholic Church stemming back into the 1970’s. Furthermore, Baron helped the survivors of this terrible tragedy get their story out and ultimately receive closure after a life of pain.
Now, not every case you investigate will be a nation-wide phenomenon and not every story you publish will change the lives of others. However, if you do happen to get your hands on some potentially groundbreaking information, you must, absolutely must make sure that you have solid and conclusive evidence to support your information, whether you know its true or not. Gathering such evidence might include several interviews, you asking the same questions and you being repetitive. But ultimately you need to make sure that your story has absolutely no flaws and no question of truth before you publish it.
Unfortunately, you may know something is completely true, but if you can’t prove that to others, then you really can’t move forward with it from a journalism perspective. This is why you need to be ready to dig deep for information, be prepared to schedule several interviews and even put something like this to the forefront of your life. Now, of course family and depending on your views, religion, must prioritized, but sometimes your life will revolve around your career, especially since you are always on the clock.
Anyways, a prime example of a journalist not verifying information, cross-checking information and speaking with all witnesses and sources can be seen in the infamous “A Rape on Campus” story by Rolling Stone. The journalist, Sabrina Erdely, was known for her crime stories, hence her investigating a rape on a college campus.
Erdely met with a student at the University of Virginia by the name of Jackie. Jackie told Erdely a story about how she was brutally raped by seven male students in a fraternity house. Instead of asking supposed witnesses from the event, such as Jackie’s peers, Erdely trusted Jackie and published the story.
The the story blew up and the reputation of the University of Virginia was severely damaged, as well as the Dean, Nicole Eramo. If the story were true, then yes, a brutal, seven-person sexual assault deserves to be published and for it to be put under a spotlight. However, the key word is true, and the story was ultimately debunked.
It turned out that Jackie had changed her story several times, the names of the boys that assaulted her didn’t match anyone at the fraternity or anyone in the entire university, Jackie’s friends had different sides to the story and ultimately none of Jackie’s story appeared to be credible.
This could have been easily prevented had Erdely simply interviewed her friends, checked the school database for names of the alleged rapists and ultimately verified Jackie’s information. Unfortunately for Erdely, she failed her job as a journalist, and because of that, her reputation shattered and her career was destroyed.
Furthermore, the story caused major amounts of damage to the University of Virginia, Dean Eramo and the Phi Kappi Psi fraternity. This lead to defamatory lawsuits that resulted in millions of dollars awarded. For example, Dean Eramo was award $3 million in damages, while Phi Kappa Psi was awarded $1.65 million.
This is another reason you need to find evidence that supports your information, because if you’re wrong, you can get sued for slander and libel, which will both ruin your career and destroy your pocket.
The do’s and don’ts of journalism goes on forever. The impacts that law has on journalism, too, could go on forever. Ranging from the First Amendment, freedom of the press, public and private information, public and private property, subpoenas, source confidentiality, ethics, morals and the list goes on. Although I can’t touch on all these topics in a reasonable word count, I was able to touch on the basics and show tricks that will make your job much easier. With that said, after the tricks shown, advice given and examples of previous fails and success, you should understand that understanding law is absolutely required in order to be a successful journalist.