Your rights as an online journalist: what will 2007 bring?

With a new year and a newly Democratic Congress, the atmosphere of American political discourse is thick with auguries of change. What might those changes mean for online journalists? We queried experts in constitutional law, copyright and ethics for a forecast for online journalists in 2007.

Some of the experts we spoke to registered their strongest concerns about the Bush administration’s aggressive stance toward journalists. “George Bush is exceedingly bad news for this country on almost every front, and one of those fronts is his contempt for the press,” said David Rubin, Dean and Professor of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. “He and his Justice Department, prosecutors, and the whole tone that he has set – are more than willing to use the subpoena power to get sources and get confidential information and basically, in his view, put journalists in their place.”

However, John Hartman, a journalism professor at Central Michigan University, predicted that in 2007, “The Bush Administration will be forced to back off on and drop its investigations and intimidations of journalists and news organizations as it is forced to spend time defending itself from various Congressional investigations, including those that might be preludes to impeachment.” Indeed, there are news reports saying that the President is beefing up his legal team in anticipation of Congressional investigations.

As critical as he is of the President Bush’s actions, Rubin doesn’t share Hartman’s expectation of change; “I don’t think anything changes him.” Rubin said it would not surprise him to see more journalists jailed in 2007: “Not only ultimately jailed, but more subpoenas for information, more subpoenas of phone records – whatever tactics [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales and the Justice Department can come up with, they will.”

Hartman said a Congress led by Democrats will generally be more supportive of press freedom, and may even be open to passing a federal shield law, such as the Free Flow of Information Act sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). Hearings were held on the bill last September, but “Congress might pass a federal shield law, but Bush would veto it under present circumstances,” Hartman wrote. “If he decides to govern from the middle and try to repair his public opinion ratings, Bush might allow it.”

But Rubin disagreed, noting, “[T]his is an issue that the Senate and the House have considered regularly since 1972, since the Branzburg case. So that’s almost 35 years ago, they haven’t done it yet. The situation is now far more complex than it was in 1972, now that you have online journalists and bloggers, which raise definitional issues. The mood of the country is not nearly as supportive of journalists as it was back then. The Congress has so much else on its plate this year, and it’s likely to be a highly contentious place that I just don’t think this is going to rise to the surface as an issue to consider. For all of those reasons, I would be shocked if a federal shield law was passed next year.”

In fact, according to a blog entry by CBS News legal consultant Andrew Shelton, Lugar’s bill died in committee last year precisely because Justice Department lawyers wanted to be able to compel reporters’ testimony in the forthcoming trial of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in the illegal disclosure of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

In the area of copyright law, while big changes are not expected, there are still “many issues, both in terms of journalists reproducing content from copyrighted sources and, more significantly, having their work reproduced without permission,” said Jon Garon, Dean and Professor of Law at Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. Those issues range from common internet practices that can expose journalists and bloggers to charges of copyright infringement to steps that online media producers may need to take to protect their work.

For example, bloggers frequently embed video or audio from sites such as YouTube or Odeo. But Garon said that even when the original source of the content is acknowledged, those bloggers may still be subject to charges of copyright infringement. While portal sites such as Google Video require that people uploading video to their site attest to their rights to the content they post, Google can’t guarantee that the posters are telling the truth. Someone who republishes that content without a demonstrable effort to prevent infringement can still be sued, Garon said.

Of course, most journalists use copyrighted material under the “fair use” provisions of U.S. copyright law. Those provisions allow for the republication of small portions of a copyrighted work for such purposes as news reporting, comment or criticism, or classroom teaching. The fair use doctrine has a long and venerable legal history, but Garon warned “the parameters of fair use are inherently fact-specific.” Further, as OJR reported last February, some experts are concerned that the improper use of cease-and-desist letters by copyright holders has caused online content to be removed.

According to Garon, one copyright issue that caused some controversy in 2006 will likely be ignored in 2007. That’s the law governing “orphan” works – works published before 1923 for which there’s no apparent copyright holder. Under current law, these orphan works are still under copyright – and anyone who uses them risks a lawsuit. In 109th Congress, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), then chair of the Intellectual Property Committee of the House of Representatives, introduced the Orphan Works Act of 2006, which would permit their use when it can be demonstrated that a good-faith effort has been made to contact the copyright holder. Under fire from organizations representing professional photographers and others, Smith ultimately withdrew the bill from consideration, despite support from the American Library Association and others.

As to ownership issues, according to Hartman, “deregulation that would result in the lifting of cross-ownership restrictions is less likely to happen as Democrats are less comfortable with media conglomerates. Yet Democrats might support legislation that would make it easier for newspapers to survive and allow cross-ownership in circumstances where the newspaper would fail otherwise.”

Bloggers faced new legal challenges in 2006, both in the United States and internationally. Josh Wolf landed in federal prison for refusing to turn over unpublished video of a demonstration to a California grand jury. Hao Wu, who was imprisoned for five months by the Chinese government, apparently in connection with video that he was shooting for a documentary about underground churches in that country. Libel suits against bloggers are on the rise. And in December, an Australian court ruled that linking to copyrighted sound recordings can be illegal if it makes it easier to gain improper access to that material.

For Robert Cox of the Media Bloggers Association, these developments illustrate that many bloggers perform the same newsgathering functions as professional journalists, and thus require the same level of education, access and legal protection. His organization has spearheaded a training and certification program that would ensure that bloggers understand and adhere to high legal and ethical standards. MBA has negotiated agreements that will allow certified bloggers to obtain press credentials to cover such events as government press conferences and briefings.

Finally, “there’s something that’s extremely important in all of this, and it almost never gets talked about, Cox said. “Let’s start with this: Freedom isn’t free. If you’re going to publish – and bloggers are publishers – and you can’t back up what you’re writing with lawyers and resources to pay for all of that, you’re not going to last very long.” That’s why, Cox said, the MBA is negotiating with the insurance industry to offer liability insurance that bloggers can tap in the event of a legal fight. “As blogging and citizen journalism develops over time, you need to have access to this kind of support.”

About Kim Pearson

I teach writing for journalism and interactive multimedia at The College of New Jersey. I also blog at Professor Kim's News Notes ( and BlogHer ( for which I serve as a contributing editor. My current interests are in coming up with new models for interactive storytelling, including the possibilities that might derive from employing videogame narrative conventions into news presentation. I have been reading OJR with enthusiasm since its inception, and I look forward to participating more fully in the dialogue here.