Published: 30 April 2020
There are many key skills that journalism students need to learn, from interviewing, writing, shooting video, shorthand and digital story telling on social media. But did you know that another essential skill for any accomplished reporter is learning the law? From copyright and libel law to ethical regulations, journalists need to be aware of and examine, the daily dilemmas and challenges that face them when breaking a news story.
Senior lecturer and National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) Media Law board member Carole Watson explains why learning the law is so essential:
- Being a confident and campaigning journalist: Understanding how the law works empowers reporters to know when they can pursue important stories, whether that be covering breaking news, sport, show business or fashion.
- Avoiding going to jail by prejudicing an ongoing criminal case: If you study one of our journalism courses, you'll learn all about contempt of court which teaches you how to avoid “trial by media” and a possible two-year jail sentence.
- Reporting from courts: If the press do not sit in magistrates, crown and coroners courts, there is no scrutiny of what happens there. But you need to learn how to comply with several reporting restrictions to do your job.
- Avoiding a huge libel bill: If you make unjustified attacks on someone’s reputation - for example, by wrongly saying they are a dodgy businessman, or that a reality TV star has a drug problem - it might not only cost you hundreds of thousands of pounds, but also your job. It’s crucial to know when you can criticise those who deserve it.
- Refraining from “stealing” images from the internet: Copyright law means you cannot just download a Google image and republish it without legal consequences.
- Allowing everyone a private life: Privacy laws are used by celebrities, sports stars and politicians to avoid true stories about them being exposed. But when can you safely look into someone’s private life in the public interest?
- Going undercover to expose what needs exposing: There are times when it’s ok for journalists to use subterfuge to secretly investigate wrongdoing.
- Safely using social media: Journalists are expected to post on various platforms to tell and promote their stories. But you can get into just as much legal hot water on Twitter or Instagram as you can writing for a mainstream newspaper or magazine.
- Giving anonymity to the vulnerable: Reporters know of several laws which mean you cannot identify certain people in your stories, such as children in court, sexual offence victims and occasionally much-hated notorious criminals.
- Being sympathetic and discreet in times of grief and shock: By studying our journalism courses, you'll learn how to responsibly report on sensitive stories, such as suicides. You'll also learn how we should and should not approach those caught up in major news stories, for example the families of the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing, or those who’ve lost loved ones to the coronavirus.
Carole Watson's journalism career spans 25 years and includes roles such as Deputy Editor of Grazia magazine, Features Editor at the News of the World and Head of Features at the Daily Mirror. She is now Programme Leader of BA (Hons) Fashion Journalism at the University of Sunderland.