Journalists can’t wait for law to catch up with technology
If lawyers, judges and legislators have learned anything during the last 25 years, it’s that the law simply can’t keep up with technology.
For more than a generation, we’ve seen the law lag behind technological advances in reproductive rights, health care and telecommunications. Currently, the law is racing to catch up with the rapidly exploding world of the Internet, e-commerce and e-mail. For journalists, the gap between reality and legality is a large one, one that presents unanswered questions almost daily.
Perhaps the most critical issue is the reliability of information obtained from the Internet. In its unregulated state, the Internet is home to a universe of anonymous sources. “Official” Web sites might not be official at all. The information contained in Web postings can be intentionally or inadvertently inaccurate.
Hackers eventually will realize that they can do more damage (albeit with less attention) by infecting sites with incorrect information than they can by posting glaring errors that are easily identified and corrected. When that occurs, can a reporter ever reasonably rely on electronic information? Will courts allow publishers to avoid liability by attributing potentially unreliable information to its electronic source (“According to unfoundedrumor.com …”)? Or will courts insist that journalists verify electronic information before re-disseminating it?
Journalists also will face a number of other liability issues associated with electronic reporting and newsgathering:
These questions — and others like them — will plague journalists until courts across the country reach a consensus as to the rules that should govern the use of electronic information in newsgathering. When those rules finally emerge, however, the question will be whether changes in technology and newsgathering already have rendered them obsolete.
Douglas Lee is a partner in the Dixon, Ill., law firm of Ehrmann Gehlbach Beckman Badger & Lee and a legal correspondent for the First Amendment Center.