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Legal and Ethical Implications of Student Reporting Laboratories

As the emergence of digital technologies has transformed the news industry, the way that journalism is taught and learned in the college classroom and in campus-based journalism laboratories, or news labs, has changed as well.

Traditionally, college journalism students needed to find a summer internship at a professional news outlet or work in a news lab, such as the campus newspaper or radio station, to gain the experience needed to be competitive in the job market after graduation.

News labs benefit students and their host institutions by offering students experiential learning opportunities, meeting objectives for service learning, and promoting community engagement that fosters the university’s relationship with its stakeholders.

Frank LoMonte, director of the University of Florida Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, and Kathleen Bartzen Culver from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wanted to know how educators conceptualize their changing roles as students are participating in journalism in ways that extend beyond the traditional “college newspaper” environment.

In particular, the researchers wanted to explore what legal and ethical principles and issues affect educators, and which legal and ethical principles and issues most commonly arise when educators serve as de facto publishers. Perhaps most importantly, the authors sought to identify guidance and resources that can best help educators when they serve as publishers.

The research included in-depth phone interviews with 10 educators who lead a variety of efforts – from sole journalism courses in a liberal arts college setting to capstone courses in large university journalism schools – to publish student work publicly.

Legal and ethical questions that arose from the interviews included:

  • To what extent is the instructor answerable to the university and at risk of reprisal based on student conduct and efforts outside the classroom?
  • Who owns intellectual property produced from student work?
  • Who assumes legal liability should a students’ news coverage result in a lawsuit?
  • What considerations intrinsic to the university setting should be made, given that the academic calendar presents challenges by hindering momentum of a news cycle?
  • Could controversy that arises from student reporting cause conflict for the educator or university?

Perhaps the biggest question that arose from this research is that of legal protection. Are universities prepared to provide legal support to students who may be sued for defamation, whether founded or unfounded? Further, can students maintain the level of confidentiality needed to ensure trust with sources while still submitting work for a grade under their name?

Overall findings from this study included identifying these questions as starting points for further research.

Student journalists in the UF College of Journalism and Communications Innovation News Center

Ultimately, experiential journalism education through campus news labs offer unique educational benefits, including the opportunity for coaching from highly skilled journalism expatriates, who are increasingly joining college faculties as newsrooms downsize. To take advantage of those benefits moving forward, educators and their institutions should adopt formal preventative policies around the types of legal issues likely to arise around student reporting. Educators should also be ready to anticipate and address issues including ownership of content and supervisory authority over, and legal responsibility for, the actions of student reporters.

Making these changes means that college-level journalism programs need to revisit and reimagine both school and educator responsibilities in training new journalists. Students working in experiential settings will need appropriate legal resources equal to the professional-level risks they are being asked to take.

Greater legal resources should be devoted to both the decisions in creating clinical journalism programs, as well as to meet the ongoing daily legal needs of instructors and students as judgement calls arise. Continuing education training for instructors in evolving legal issues is needed as well.

Ultimately, this research underscores the responsibility that educators have to teach students how to report responsibly while doing no harm, given that inexperienced students could be unduly affected by a single misjudgment in reporting in a way that could harm their professional careers.

The original research paper, “Clinical Journalism Education: Legal and Ethical Implication of Faculty-Led Reporting Laboratories” appeared in the University of Baltimore Journal of Media Law & Ethics, Volume 9, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2021.

Authors: Kathleen Bartzen Culver, Frank LoMonte

This summary was written by Marie Morganelli, Ph.D.

Posted: July 9, 2021
Category: Brechner News
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