Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Journalism Law: A Rough Overview Part Three -- Invasion of Privacy

Originally appeared in issue 13 of Married Punks published in 1998.

Journalism Law: A Rough Overview Part Three -- Invasion of Privacy

Invasion of privacy is a tricky matter.  Not every state recognizes it, though many more are starting to, and it has many variations on the theme.  There are torts involved (such as false appropriation, i.e., using someone's image without the person's permission to sell a product [like I did last issue with Sandra Bullock]), and the laws vary state by state.  So how do you protect yourself?

There are no easy answers to that question.  Instead, circumstances must be looked at.  One of the most important: is the person a public or newsworthy figure?  If not, tread carefully.  Printing intimate details of your neighbor's sex life may get you in trouble.  If you happen to have been having sex with Tim Armstrong or Linda Lovelace, then you would probably be protected, unless you were purposely setting out to destroy someone.

There is a difference, however, between destroying someone and uncomvering a story.  If the story uncovered has some newsworthy potential, then you would most likely be protected.  Let's say you hear a rumor through the grapevine that your high school football couach is videotaping the guys in the locker room.  You do a bit of investigative reporting and find out that the coach is doing it.  Naturally, the coach isn't exactly a public figure or even newsworthy, but the story is.  You could print it, and most likely be safe.  Actually, the coach would be better off claiming libel because claiming invasion of privacy implies that the story is true.  The newsworthy aspect is tricky, though.

Suppose you uncover the fact that the coach isn't filming his boys, but smokes a little marijuana instead.  Is this newsworthy?  Most likely not.  If he's a staunch anti-drug advocate however, and requires drug testing for his athletes, then it would be newsworthy.  The invasion of privacy issue is mostly situation based.  There are some clear cut rules, though.

One of the biggest is known as false appropriation.  In other words, don't steal someone's image to sell your product.  This goes on a lot in the punk/'zine community and is rarely challenged by the people whose images are used.  It's rare that this happens, but the mayor of New York was recently involved in a case like this concerning a publication and bus ads.

When it comes to pictures, another thing not to do is to use someone's picture (or image of a certain item) to promote a story that has nothing to do with the picture.  Don't take a picture of the houswife next door and then use it in an article dealing with the fact that three out of four housewives have sex with animals.  This type of invasion of privacy sometimes happens in the broadcast news field.

The best protection against an invasion of privacy suit is to avoid an action if it just feels wrong.  Don't print non-newsworthy items about "regular" people.  Don't eavesdrop and print what you hear if it isn't important.  What it boils down to is: Don't do it to someone if you wouldn't want it done to you.

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