The News v The Law – Stupidity in a Nutshell

Last post, I discussed 7 News and their ability to be a constant presence in our lives through social media. This week, I plan to investigate some of the legal risks that may ensue from a news organisation that handles social media poorly. In particular, I want to investigate how the release of information to the public, whether knowingly or not, negatively impacts people’s lives. In the rush to get the most coverage on the break of a story, some news outlets can release facts that have not been corroborated and create some dicey legal issues, or more scarily, can endanger peoples lives. There are a few examples of this both domestically and internationally.

Starting with one of the more recent examples, the BBC found itself in hot water recently after one of its journalists mistakenly tweeted that The Queen had been admitted to hospital. While the tweet was quickly deleted, several newspapers around the world had already picked up on the story, including German and Indian newspapers. While the journalist originally stated that it was a prank, the BBC later confirmed that it was a rehearsal for the actual event that went wrong. They also confirmed that they were ‘tightening up’ their guidelines following the incident. For a reputable news organisation, this was a huge embarrassment for the BBC, but given the accidental nature of the incident, many people took the ‘live and learn’ approach to the situation.

An even more embarrassing moment came when San Francisco news station KTVU released highly incorrect and racist names live on air and social media for the pilots of the Asiana Airlines flight 214 that crashed in 2013, taking three lives. While first reporting that these names were confirmed by the National Transportation Safety Board, they corrected themselves later and apologized. However, not before the story was picked up elsewhere and was a complete disaster for the news station, resulting in a law suit and significant negative publicity worldwide.

Back on home soil, treasurer Joe Hockey was recently awarded $200,000 in damages from Fairfax Media due to a tweet made by the Sydney Morning Herald in July 2015. One particular phrase was determined by the courts to be defamatory; ‘Treasurer for Sale’. Joe Hockey became the first Australian politician to successfully sue over a  tweet, and given the use of social media by news outlets in increasing, he will probably not be the last.

I also want to briefly cover two incidents of a more serious nature; the coverage of the Paris terrorist attacks in January 2015 and the Sydney Siege in 2014. Both of these incidents involve poor news broadcasting on television, print and social media. Both involve the media potentially updating the perpetrator with live police and law enforcement movements and even the movements of the victims during their terrible ordeal. These are the definitive low point of what the constant strive for the most up to date and exclusive news coverage can provide and are what every news organisation has to avoid.

These sorts of situations differ from social media issues that can be resolved with the use of an employee social media policy. Here, instead of one rogue employee going on a tirade and impacting the reputation of their employer, we have organisations that negligently released information that potentially put lives at risk. A news organisation is a different entity from your normal business enterprise, and as such, they have some pretty specific legal implications from their use of social media. The Paris news agency is now facing several law suits that can hopefully set some sort of precedent, meaning that others might be guided from their mistakes.


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