Accusations and Allegations — Are you Writing Responsibly?

Writ­ing respon­si­bly is some­thing that the vast major­i­ty of on-line writ­ers and blog­gers do instinc­tive­ly, with­out any train­ing, on the oth­er hand there are some writ­ers that think every nugget of infor­ma­tion must be passed on to the whole world with­out a thought (or per­haps care) for the dam­age pub­li­ca­tion may cause.

Just what is responsible writing?

It is always wise to start a sub­ject as com­plex as this with a def­i­n­i­tion. Respon­si­bil­i­ty is “The state or duty to deal with some­thing or of hav­ing con­trol over some­one and being account­able (or to blame) for some­thing that hap­pens” and by def­i­n­i­tion there is moral oblig­a­tion to behave cor­rect­ly when in pos­ses­sion of cer­tain knowl­edge or infor­ma­tion, espe­cial­ly when it relates to anoth­er per­son who could be harmed by accu­sa­tions made.

Responsible by Photoshotter24 CC0 Public Domain from Pixabay        There is also a dif­fer­ence between accus­ing a per­son of some­thing and mak­ing state­ments about an organ­i­sa­tion, a busi­ness, a char­i­ty, or gov­ern­ment body, with the lat­ter it is gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered the pub­lic right to know may be over­whelm­ing, yet pre­cau­tions should be tak­en before pub­lish­ing anything.

In some respects it may be con­sid­ered as act­ing respon­si­bly to pub­lish infor­ma­tion that every per­son on the plan­et should be aware of on sites like Wik­ileaks, yet there is often a fine line between doing right and doing wrong. Where leak­ing mate­r­i­al could for exam­ple be defined as trea­son­able and whether right or wrong there can be valid argu­ments made in either direc­tion. Doc­u­ments are one thing and valid argu­ments can be made in either direc­tion, but when pub­li­ca­tion relates to a per­son then it will like­ly have a dif­fer­ent impact. Pub­lish­ing pri­vate per­son­al infor­ma­tion about a pub­lic fig­ure that nobody needs to know.

Is there a duty for the writer to inform the pub­lic or con­sid­er that person’s pri­va­cy? Which takes pri­or­i­ty? This can lead to com­plex legal questions.

Accusations and Allegations

It is all too easy to pub­lish accu­sa­tions and alle­ga­tions about peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly those who have attract­ed the atten­tion of the pub­lic, the writer has a social respon­si­bil­i­ty to con­sid­er the words they pub­lish and ques­tion whether or not they are hurt­ful, it is easy to accuse but much hard­er to check facts.

Jour­nal­ists, even those who work for trashy news­pa­pers, go through an edu­ca­tion about the code of ethics of the things that may, or may not, be pub­lished. The mod­ern blog­ger or on-line writer has no such edu­ca­tion, yet in many respects they take the part of on-line jour­nal­ists and some writ­ers are dri­ven by the need to make mon­ey and are pre­pared to pub­lish any snip­pet they can get hold of, but should they? 

Mak­ing unsub­stan­ti­at­ed accu­sa­tions about peo­ple, whether they are celebri­ties, politi­cians, or notable peo­ple may seem trendy and cool but may breach their civ­il lib­er­ties, right to pri­va­cy or may be con­sid­ered libelous and even when the facts can be proven to be true and in the worst case will involve expens­es that the aver­age blog­ger can NOT afford. News­pa­pers do fre­quent­ly pub­lish libelous mate­r­i­al, but here the man­age­ment, lawyers, and edi­tors cal­cu­late the like­ly uplift in sales ver­sus the like­ly amount they will prob­a­bly pay in dam­ages before pub­lish­ing. This is a risk few on-line writ­ers can afford.

Sim­ply because you have access to inside infor­ma­tion about a per­son does not mean you should go ahead and pub­lish, cau­tion is required in sen­si­tive posts, you must con­sid­er their pri­va­cy ver­sus the right of the world to know and as a gen­er­al guide­line is it best to be cautious.

Legal Considerations

Gag OrderThe legal con­cerns around writ­ing are pri­mar­i­ly dri­ven by the fol­low­ing areas:

  • Pla­gia­ris­ing, copy­ing and quoting
  • Access to pri­vate information
  • Defam­ing anoth­er person

In the on-line world what rules apply and how they are con­trolled will great­ly depend on the loca­tion of:

  • The per­son whose rights have been breached
  • The per­son who wrote the article
  • The web­site owner.

Assum­ing each of these par­ties are in dif­fer­ent coun­tries then it may com­pli­cate legal action, but it any of those par­ties are in the Unit­ed States the penal­ties can rise sig­nif­i­cant­ly should the aggriev­ed per­son wins their case. Con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, rights under the US First Amend­ment do not pro­vide a license to break the law in order to obtain infor­ma­tion, any writ­ers that tres­pass, wire­tap or vio­late oth­er laws that apply are not immune from pros­e­cu­tion sim­ply because they were gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion for a pub­lic inter­est news sto­ry. The US Supreme Court has repeat­ed­ly impugned those for breach­ing laws.

The Freest Press ever?

         As men­tioned before most blog­gers have no edu­ca­tion about the legal lim­its of jour­nal­ism. In some respects this is good because they are free to raise ques­tions that chal­lenge soci­ety in a way that that a jour­nal­ist will nev­er do. The jour­nal­ist will think about the con­ti­nu­ity of their employ­ment, some­thing that the blog­ger arguably does not wor­ry about.

Whilst the US Bill of Rights, and the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights (under Arti­cle 19) may give every per­son the right to hold an opin­ion with­out inter­fer­ence and say what they wish, there are still the rights of oth­er peo­ple that writ­ers should con­sid­er before pub­lish­ing their words. This whole area can be a bal­anc­ing act of rights par­tic­u­lar­ly in rela­tion to “inter­fer­ence with his pri­va­cy, fam­i­ly, home or cor­re­spon­dence”  (Arti­cle 12, UDHR). A writer must be seen as cred­i­ble, present evi­dence that the things they say are true, with­out such evi­dence and a law suit can eas­i­ly follow.

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing Blogs and on-line pub­lish­ing sites are part of the freest press that human­i­ty has known. Rumour, innu­en­do and gos­sip are things that pro­fes­sion­al hard-news reporters gen­er­al­ly avoid, yet blog­gers live hap­pi­ly in this space, but should they? Remem­ber the well used phrase ‘with great free­dom comes great respon­si­bil­i­ty’. The writer should think about the things they write and avoid ground­less alle­ga­tions, the job of the on-line writer is arguably tougher than the jour­nal­ist because of the abil­i­ty of the hyper-link, if evi­dence exists then it should already be pub­lished and a link should be set-up oth­er­wise they are tread­ing the path of rumour, innu­en­do, or gossip.

Privacy

Right to pri­va­cy is one of the most com­plex dilem­mas that is found in writ­ing, we live in a soci­ety where each per­son has rights that need to be pro­tect­ed. This right to pri­va­cy ver­sus the public’s right to know is one of the most com­plex ques­tions pro­fes­sion­al pub­li­ca­tions face. Here a major eth­i­cal ques­tion exists about how to bal­ance respect for pri­va­cy rights with the need for legit­i­mate inves­ti­ga­tion. This ques­tion is as valid for the blog­ger as it is for the jour­nal­ist. A per­son close to the tar­get of a crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion, for exam­ple, may be able to tell all through their blog, but they may be plac­ing them­selves in greater dan­ger.

I have seen only a few blog­gers breach these guide­lines, but many more come very close to doing so, par­tic­u­lar­ly by mak­ing unsub­stan­ti­at­ed accu­sa­tions against politi­cians or stars. This is one of the dif­fer­ences between on-line writ­ers and jour­nal­ists, the blog­ger has no edi­tor, no pub­lish­er, nor in-house lawyers to stop the arti­cle from being pub­lished, how­ev­er ulti­mate­ly each writer must pro­vide their own process of checks and bal­ances to pro­tect their blog.

About Peter B. Giblett CITP, LLB(Hons)

        Peter B. Giblett is a non-prac­tis­ing lawyer and is here pro­vid­ing an opin­ion, not legal advice. If you need spe­cif­ic advice on any issue dis­cussed here you should engage a lawyer to help you.

 

 

Buy Peter B. Giblett a cof­fee as a thank you for his  con­tri­bu­tion about some legal issues writ­ers must con­sid­er. All images used here are either cre­at­ed or owned by Peter Giblett or have been sourced from a pub­lic domain loca­tion, such as Pixabay.

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5 Replies to “Accusations and Allegations — Are you Writing Responsibly?”

  1. We do not have cen­sor­ship in America

  2. Peter B. Giblett says: Reply

    This post isn’t talk­ing about cen­sor­ship, it is talk­ing about respon­si­bil­i­ty, think­ing about whether a per­son­al accu­sa­tion should be made.

  3. […] can harm. When writ­ing a harm­ful truth the writer must be absolute­ly cer­tain about their facts. Prov­ing alle­ga­tions is of utmost impor­tance. News organ­i­sa­tions are like­ly to have the funds to defend legal actions, […]

  4. […] Accu­sa­tions and Alle­ga­tions – Are you Writ­ing Responsibly? […]

  5. […] do have to be care­ful about the words you use as oth­er legal rules do apply, such as libel. Mak­ing accu­sa­tions can bring with them their own legal […]

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