Writing responsibly is something that most on-line writers and bloggers do instinctively, without any training. The don’t make unfounded accusations and allegations. On the other hand there are some writers that believe every nugget of information needs publishing. Does the world need to know? Do they think, or care about 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”. You have a moral obligation to behave correctly when you have certain knowledge, information, or facts. Especially when it relates to another person who could be harmed should accusations be made.
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 that the public right to know may overwhelm the needs of privacy. You MUST consider precautions required for privacy before publishing anything.
In some respect acting responsibly is essential. Maybe this requires publishing facts to every person on the planet. Sites like Wikileaks exist precisely for this reason.
There is a fine line between doing right and doing wrong. You need to consider the implications.
Leaking material could be defined as treasonable. Whether right or wrong there are valid arguments made in both directions. Documents are one thing, but when publication relates to a person then a different impact is likely. Publishing private personal information about a public figure that nobody needs to know serves no purpose.
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.
Access to Information
Just because you have access to inside information about a person does not mean you should go ahead and publish. Caution is necessary when sensitive material is under discussion. Consider their right privacy versus the right of the world to know. Most publications act cautiously and not risk a law suit or injunction.
Time to consider your own duty.
The 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 will greatly depend on location. This applies for:
- The person impacted.
- Whoever wrote the article.
- The website owner.
- The data storage site.
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, irrespective of where the infringer resides.
The Freest Press ever?
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 than writers should consider before publishing their words. This whole area becomes a balancing act of rights particularly in relation to “interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence” (Article 12, Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
It is a matter of evidence. A writer needs to present credible evidence to back up their story. Implying that the words are true is not good enough, without such evidence a law suit can 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 they often seem fertile ground for celebrity bloggers.
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 making groundless allegations. The job of the on-line writer is arguably tougher than the journalist because of the hyper-link. If evidence exists then it should already be published. Use a pre-existing link otherwise you may start treading the path of rumour, innuendo, or gossip.
Right to privacy is one of the most complex dilemmas found in writing. We live in a society where each person has rights that need protection.
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. To do so may place themselves in grave danger.
Only few bloggers breach these guidelines. Those that do optentially place their sites in danger. How close have you come to 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. Ultimately each writer must provide their own process of checks and balances to protect their blog.
About Peter B. Giblett CITP, LLB(Hons)