Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Bloggers beware?

By Elaine Shein

Can people write whatever they want in a blog?
What happens to a newspaper if one of its reporters or editors writes a blog and someone decides to sue?
Does it make a difference if this was a work blog or written as a personal blog?
In the August edition of Editor & Publisher there is a great story that encourages discussion and stirs debate on the world of blogs.
According to the story, it states that Technorati “estimates that some 75,000 blogs are created every day, nearly one per second, joining the more than 40 million blogs already populating cyberspace. That’s twice as many blogs as there were just six months ago.”
And then comes the questions: who is legally responsible for the material that appears in these blogs?
While blogs were created to encourage freedom to publish a diversity of opinions and subjects on the world wide web and become the bulletin board, diary or soapbox of anyone who wishes, legal experts are warning people to be careful.
In the case of bloggers tied to the traditional media, the print or broadcast owners may be responsible for libelous material that occurs on a blog by someone on their staff — even if the material was published as a personal blog.
Some of the issues that appear in the E&P article to think about:
Publishers need to think about “the balance between editing for liability and preserving the spontaneity of a blog.”
What kind of crosschecking on content was done on blogs before they were posted?
Newspapers need to check if their libel insurance will cover freelancers who blog on the company’s website.
If a staff person writes a personal blog from home, it may still be subject to defamation suits because of who the staff person is and the weight that that person’s job carries for the company.
If some of the comments or blogs from outsiders are edited by a company before they are posted online (even if it was to take out profane or offensive language), the company may bear some legal responsibility because they have been active in editing and decision making.
Newspapers may want to post on their websites that comments will be monitored and that “viewers should notify a newspaper’s online site about reputed errors, omissions or potentially libelous third-party postings.”
A disclaimer should also be added that the views expressed don’t reflect the “newspaper or its staff or its advertisers.”
Codes of ethics or guidelines for staff at media outlets should also add something about blogging.
The E&P article also suggested buying more insurance against libel, to cover blogging activity — and be prepared to answer how content is edited to protect against libel.
So what do fellow bloggers think of all this?
I invite you to respond to


Gary L. West said...

Private party bloggers are learning what media professional have known since they first published anything, which is that publication in a public forum can have consequences. Perhaps its just some nasty comments from another blogger, but people are learning that if you put private things in a public space it becomes public, with risks and potential consequences.
On the flip side, media professionals are having a tough time getting the hang of blogging. We aren't used to putting our personal views on things out there, because we know there are consequences that could potentially threaten our jobs, or, on company sanctioned websites, that could be edited. And that editing may mean anything from fixing style or grammar, to taking out material that may not fit our owners'/publishers'/editors' views of what is appropriate.
Of the "blogs" I've read on media sites, they are not nearly as lively as what you read out there in the more "private" portions of the blogoshere. The aren't as personal, and thus offer less about the people who write them, which means there is less for people who read blogs to connect with. That's something the "mainstream" media has a devil of a time with -- connecting to its readers, or perhaps more importantly providing a venue for its readers to connect to the medium.
People don't connect to a medium. People connect with people. People relate to people, their experiences, their joys, their pain, their suffering, their loves, their challenges -- all that messy emotional stuff.
So, what's the solution? Ultimately, the people (and probably the courts) will decide.
Will private bloggers be sued for liable? Not likely if they are doing it as a hobby, unless the blogger in question has some wealth in order to tap into for damages. But, what if a blogger has ads (like GoogleAds) on their site? Could Google be the deep pockets the libeled individual goes after? Hmmm, now that could get interesting. And on sites like Blogger, which is owned by Google, does that make Google the "publisher?"
Will mainstream media "blogs" connect more with their readers? Unlikely, if we choose to run blog entries through the same editing mill we do for conventional news stories. We journalists have a knack for sucking the life, the passion, the marrow, out of most everything, leaving only the bare and hollow bones of facts.
But the thrilling thing is that we are at this confluence where it's hard to know for sure what will happen. The waters are swirling all around and it's hard to tell which way the current is flowing. Will bloggers turn the course of the mainstream media stream, or will the traditional media force the bloggers to change course? Likely both will deal with changes and lead down a whole new course.
Either way it's going to be a helluva wild ride!
Who wants to come along?

b!X said...

If some of the comments or blogs from outsiders are edited by a company before they are posted online (even if it was to take out profane or offensive language), the company may bear some legal responsibility because they have been active in editing and decision making.

This is an odd argument for E&P to make, given the recent court decision which (in the words of one report) established:

"Bloggers cannot be hit with libel suits on the basis of anonymous postings on their Web sites because federal law grants them immunity by explicitly stating that they cannot be treated as the 'publisher' of such comments, a federal judge has ruled."

This is what the Communications Decency Act established: That, to encourage providers of online content to self-police, the law would provide them a kind of "safe harbor" against prosecution.

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