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A media law conference at Harvard Law School last week refreshed my memory regarding traditional journalism rules and offered insight as to how online standards are taking shape.

Copyright, defamation and the First Amendment always make an appearance whenever law with regard to the Fourth Estate is discussed.

A balancing act occurs to ensure all three of these principles are maintained and respected during news gathering.

The law grants newspapers the right to print uncensored material; however, a newspaper cannot defame an individual by knowingly printing untruths.

Once a newspaper publishes a story, copyright laws protect it from being published in its entirety by anybody else — be it in print form or online.

Fair use, or the notion a person cannot “own” a fact, muddies the water a bit and causes the rules to blur to a shade of gray.

A person can take the facts from a news story and reuse them as long as they are repackaged and represented in a different manner.

A person cannot take a story, opinion, column or photo and reproduce it in the exact same format in a different venue.

So, you can’t cut an article out of the newspaper, scan it and post it on your website. Instead, a person can either read the story and comment on its contents or link to the story if it’s available on the newspaper’s website.

The nuts and bolts of laws governing our profession usually only concern the general public when it feels it has suffered defamation or a person receives a letter stating he or she is in violation of copyright laws.

However, the rights granted to the news media also apply to residents when it comes to access to information or places.

The average resident possesses the same rights as a reporter to view court files, zoning documents, police reports or any other public government document. The average resident is permitted to seek information in all the same venues as a reporter — government-owned public property.

Residents don’t normally exercise these rights because they aren’t sure how or they don’t have the time, which is why they rely on us, the journalists, to do it for them.

When it comes to laws and regulations governing online content and websites, the foundation is just being built.

Copyright laws apply as do fair use standards, the First Amendment and defamation.

A website is responsible for content it generates in the same way a newspaper is for the words it prints on a page.

Comments, or content generated by someone not employed by the news organization, however, are not the responsibility of the news organization, and it cannot be held accountable for content of comments.

While we now know we’re off the hook legally when it comes to comments, it doesn’t mean we plan to stop monitoring them for decency.

It seems most everything we do today is dictated by legislation, and it’s important to know which laws may apply to your activities. Many people get themselves into trouble not knowing such laws, particularly when it comes to untrained news gatherers.

Media law, however, cannot be confused with media ethics, also often ignored by the untrained. Law can be taught, ethics cannot.

Trista Steers MacVittie

Managing Editor


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