Broadcasting Ethics, Responsibilities and Law

This post is for academic purposes only. Credit is to the original author(s).

Broadcast journalists are being held to high standards of ethics by their editors and owners or regulators. Ethics are now heavily considered in the reporting of news. Newsrooms do think carefully about suspicious websites, bad taste, offending the audience, upsetting the bereaved, the vulnerable or children, victims of crime or disaster, showing how a scam or crime can be carried out, showing the moment of death in accidents or war and terrorist executions.

There used to be a consensus that if you see it or hear it happening, then it must carry more authority than the written word alone. That is a version of twentieth century expressions like: The Camera Never Lies, or A Picture Tells A Thousand Words. This did not prepare us for a world of image and media software which – in dishonest hands – will allow a picture or sound to confuse, tinker with truth, or be just another fiction. The primary rules of honesty in broadcast journalism are simple, but simple does not always makes everything obvious:

  • Do not misrepresent people or events with editing.
  • Do not fake pictures or distort sound or use sound effects that can deceive or mislead.
  • Do not get hoaxed but if you do, then just admit it.

But even before that, the first things most journalists learn on a college degree or on the job are: Facts Are Sacred, Comment Is Free and When In Doubt, Leave Out.

Information, facts and comment come at the broadcast journalist from many directions – social media, emergency services, on video, audio and online news releases, on global wire services and above all from people just telling you and/or sending in their pictures from their phones. Then various websites, vlogs and blogs, which should be treated with the same caution as other sources. If the broadcast journalist is also using social media on behalf of his employer to ask questions, find people or tell the audience something, he should first ask: ‘Is it OK for 50,000 strangers to read this?’

Honesty in broadcasting is not just broadcasting what is known to be true, but legally and provably true and impartial. Ethics comes up more and more in editorial decisions now, whether they are decision-making meetings, or just conversations among journalists. This is often driven by the changing ways in which people can get information. News is everywhere and the increasing speed of news and comment means an understanding of the demands of the law, of regulators and in compliance.


Most regulation aims to ensure decency, fairness and impartiality and to support the basic democratic concept of freedom of expression. Other aims are to prevent harm to viewers and listeners and protect children. Because as social attitudes change, regulations can change. What might have been acceptable just 20 years ago may be less so now. Sometimes news channels put a warning in the introduction of a story. Editors might consider a particular story to be unsuitable for young children, or the story or interview that is still worth telling or showing might be distressing. The script that says ‘some viewers/listeners may find parts of this report upsetting . . .’ can also mean that editors and journalists have spent a long time considering whether to carry the story at all.

Suicides were once rarely covered. But the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines for example state: The sensitive use of language is also important. Suicide was decriminalised in 1961 and since then the use of the term ‘commit’ is considered offensive by some people. ‘Take one’s life’ or ‘kill oneself’ are preferable alternatives. We should consider whether a helpline or support material should be provided, or linked to, when our output deals with such issues. The Samaritans are usually willing to be consulted by programme makers and other content producers about the portrayal of suicide and have published their own guidance for broadcasters.

The Poynter Institute has a line-by-line study of a television news item about a ten-year old boy at: ( ethics-guidelines-written-by-al/).

As a general guide many broadcast journalists should understand that perceptions of taste and decency fit into the moral climate of the times in which we live. It also matters what country the broadcaster is based in. There is a Where and When principle with matters of taste and decency.


Every journalist has to be part lawyer now and in this text we can only highlight the main issues. Detailed study of media law is needed.

But above all remember – never say something on air that you would never dare to write in print.

The biggest legal trap facing many broadcast journalists around the world is the law of defamation. Defamation is divided into libel and slander. Slander is a spoken statement and libel is a published statement. If something is spoken on air then it is a published statement and is therefore categorized as libel. This differs in detail from country to country but is quite universal in its purpose, which is to protect reputations.

Everyone – not just the rich and famous – has a reputation and could suffer harm or loss if it is damaged.

Yet without some protection investigative and public interest journalism and court reporting would be impossible. In Britain, the main defenses are complex and provide a lucrative field for lawyers. In essence they are that the report was true, or offered a reasonable opinion based on facts that were true, or that it was protected in law by Privilege, which covers reporting of parliament, courts and public meetings and in most cases those meetings include news conferences.

The other defense is Fair Comment, which enables journalists to write about films, books, plays or even a new model of car. But for a comment to enjoy this defense, the view must be honestly held. Legally this means absence of Malice. In law, Malice means an improper motive, rather than being plain nasty in a review. If you’ve been bribed by a theatre owner to go on air and criticise a new play at a different theatre then your opinion may not be honestly held, and you could lose that defense.

The defense of truth – Justification is the legal word – means that the allegation is true, and you were justified in publishing it.

Many people still think that statements on social media are safe simply because large numbers of people are involved – the ‘everyone is saying it’ myth. They think they can say whatever they like about someone because the public figure could not possibly sue everybody.

Simply not naming someone in a report does not help. The issue is – can the person be identified? If you use an interview in which someone says that all the bakers in Britain are using contaminated flour then it is very hard for one baker to claim that it was him being accused. But if the report says that all the bakers in Smallville Main Street are doing it, then if there are only two bakers on that street then you have identified them.


You must never use someone else’s material without attribution and pass it off as your own work. Plagiarism has been a rising problem for broadcast newsrooms because the web makes it seem easy to think you can use whatever you want. The law says you cannot lift video, images, sound or music off the internet or anywhere else and use it just because it is there.

Intellectual property is also a big business. Specific problems arise with what images are used and/or what is heard or spoken, for example an extract from an historical speech such as Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’.

Just because a clip is online does not mean it is a free-for-all.

Big broadcasting companies often have specialists to check all this for you. But you should know to watch out for a copy right icon © and ask permission. You can put the name of the speech or image into a search engine and add the word ‘copyright’ or ‘permission’ or ‘estate of’ and see who to contact. Explain exactly who you are and why you want to use it. Get your permission in writing. Email is fine. Then file the permission away, keep it and send a copy to your editor and/or the company lawyer.

In many cases you will find that you do get permission, especially if you are a small local radio or TV station and the purpose is just to explain or illustrate a story that does not damage the owner of the intellectual property. But you do still need permission.

Another problem for broadcast journalism is that film companies often send out clips of new films that can be used in the news. Obviously, they want the publicity. But those clips can linger in a database for years and long after the permission to use has expired. So do not just lift a film clip for your report just because it is there and available and fits your story. Check.

In most countries an exception called fair dealing allows the copying of extracts of works for non-commercial research or study. You must be genuinely studying, for example as a student, teacher, lecturer. But do not use an entire work as this would not be regarded as fair dealing.

Also remember:

  • Hamlet may be out of copyright, but a famous Hamlet performance or recording by a modern actor will not be.
  • A seventeenth-century painting may be out of copyright, but a photograph of it may not be.
  • Material online – particularly images – often carries a digital fingerprint to detect when material is pirated.
  • Computer and console games are covered by copyright.
  • The copyright to Peter Pan (and the characters) is owned by the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, forever.

Script and Image Together

What meaning could an ordinary person attach to certain words and images together? A sentence that combines with pictures of a building may be harmless, or may be dangerous and contain a reference to illegal activity. Remember that a building can identify a company and the people inside it. Also be careful when using shots of a social media website. What names or faces do we see and what are you saying at the moment that particular shot is in view? Could you be writing a script about crime or illegal activity online – and do we see a face and a name in a shot?


There is a myth that it is legally safe in the times in which we live to say someone is homosexual. It is not. If a person says he or she is homosexual then that’s fine. But do not suggest that a person is gay because people are saying he or she is, or because of rumor. Rumor is not news.

Media Lawyers

If you are new and find yourself talking to the media lawyer and/or your editor about a story which may have legal implications, first of all do not feel anxious. It is quite normal to talk it through. Also, tell the lawyer everything. Do not hide or hold back some little thing because you are worried the lawyer might suggest dropping the whole story. In fact the lawyer is trying to find a way of getting the story on air, but in a form that is legally safe. Do not get into a situation in which the lawyer much later says to you – ‘Why didn’t you tell me it was your sister/brother/ex-wife/ex-husband?’ Sometimes even a simple change can avoid trouble – one single word, or a few seconds of pictures or a clip of sound.


Do not make or forward derogatory or potentially defamatory remarks about any person or organization by email. Email is not a secure way of sending information and accidental breaches of confidentiality can happen by entering a wrong address or forwarding a message to inappropriate recipients on a distribution list. An email sent from a newsroom is usually sent in the name of the broadcaster and so it then represents your channel, station or website.

Reporting from Court

You will be with other journalists in the courtroom and the broadcast journalist’s specific role is to report in sound and/or vision, usually standing outside court. Never get a quotation from a judge wrong. For live TV it is best to use a traditional notebook – you can look at your notes when quoting a judge (see live reporting). Never take a picture inside a courtroom. Never attempt to interview someone on a jury. Do not even talk to anyone on the jury. In many countries it is permitted for a reporter to use social media in a courtroom. In England and Wales and some other countries broadcast journalists are allowed to tweet in a silent and unobtrusive way from the courtroom during a trial. They do not have to ask permission, but members of the public do.

However – it is up to the judge. There have been occasions when a judge has said that in a particular trial he will not allow it. There have also been cases where a journalist has tweeted something he should not and the judge has then banned it.

Being Web Wise

There are men nowadays who cannot distinguish between the truth and the last thing they happen to have read. – Oscar Wilde

That could have be written by Oscar Wilde yesterday and still be valid. As every journalist must know – the web might contain useful facts, comments and contacts, but it is also the home of every conspiracy theorist, polemicist, liar, fraud, hoaxer and double-dealer imaginable. It’s not just people who want to steal your credit card number – it’s the people who want you to put their opinions into your news reports as fact.

It’s very easy for people to create a fake online profile or a Twitter account with the aim of impersonating an individual or a company. Some can be convincing enough to appear genuine even to an experienced journalist.

So ask:

  • Would she really say that?
  • Does this fit in with opinions he usually expresses?
  • Does she usually make errors like that?
  • Do previous postings have any credibility?

Being skeptical means cross-checking information and looking at an address in the upper thread. If we imagine a person called Mr Fan Tassie and look for quotes from him on Google then you should not accept those as a final result. Check those with a site that might be called and then it might have more substance as this appears to be a primary source simply because of the name of the website. But it doesn’t end there. That depends if Mr Fan Tassie actually owns that website name. Or he could be lying.

Among the websites that can be used to check website ownership are or www Put the domain name you want to check into the box and it will give you the owner’s registration details.

People who used to consume media a generation ago now create it, publish it and comment on it.

UGC (User Generated Content) also called Citizen Journalism are labels that many TV and radio journalists either accept, or hate. This is simply members of the public sending broadcasters their own sound and/or video or images. This is also included in other parts of the book. There’s nothing new about eye-witnesses or the public tipping off newsrooms. What has changed is that everyone with a phone has a camera, the quality has improved, and so has the speed at which images can get on air or onto websites.

If a picture looks too good to be true (and nobody else seems to have it) then either it’s an amazing scoop, or it’s not true at all. In these circumstances there are two kinds of people in the world – those who believe in the Loch Ness Monster and those who do not. In general, journalists are safer being in the second category.

Another concern, particularly for local channels, is that the public will send news rooms images that may not be justified on grounds of taste or decency. If such an image slips through the moderation, then others will think they too can take simi lar pictures with the intention of trying to get them on television. Police now put screens around the more serious road accidents, not only to stop drivers slowing down to have a look but to stop people taking pictures.

There are also cases of people sitting at home watching any major breaking story on live TV or online then sending postings about it which give a broadcast journalist the impression that they are there and therefore a potential eye-witness.

Some people do this quite innocently – after all they are allowed to comment on an incident; after all, he didn’t tell the radio station he was not actually there, they just assumed he was there. They contacted him, called him, put him on air and asked him: ‘Tell us what’s happening at the moment?’ Some people at home even film the screen and then post the video.

One way to check that material sent to you is to have a name and number for the sender and ask some direct questions, such as: were you there and did you actually get the pictures/sound yourself?

Ask him to spell his name when you start, and then ask him at the end if he could spell it again.


Whatever channel you ever work for, in any country, a small radio station or a global network, either you, or your entire news operation, will be accused one day of lacking impartiality. You will be told you are biased. They may even protest outside.

A senior broadcast editor would tell new journalists at an induction: ‘We have editorial guidelines and they are public. But there are people who think our editors, and so you, are controlled by some mysterious all-powerful secret society, by the military-industrial complex or a network or clan that dominates the world. In fact, we just do news. And for all the detail in the guidelines we are the same as anyone in judgement – that killing people is bad, that cruelty to animals or children are bad, that stealing or corrupt use of power are bad. But that might not be written down anywhere.’

Complete impartiality is like perfection; an ideal for which many will strive but none will wholly attain. Even the most respected journalist can only be the sum of his or her beliefs, experience and attitudes, the product of society, culture and upbringing. No one can be free from bias, however hard they may try to compensate by applying professional standards of objectivity; for objectivity itself, subjectively appraised, must by nature be an unreliable yardstick.

The journalist’s responsibility is to recognize bias and compensate for it.

The journalist must stand back and view the argument from all sides, before scrupulously drawing out the key points to produce as full, balanced and impartial a picture as possible in the time available.

Police and Emergency Services

What many civilians do not know is that broadcasters and all the emergency ser vices frequently carry out training scenarios for emergencies, together. Senior police and fire officers have media training, although not usually from the broadcasting organizations.

Editors and police regularly talk to each other about security and safety in broadcast coverage.

Police also accept that radio and TV reporters and camera crews have a job to do and try to find an accommodation in emergency situations. It is a form of unwritten professional contract. You can do interviews and film and record and be told what is going on – but if you are asked not to film something (you may be told why) or to move back, then do so.

Anything broadcast can be heard or seen by people carrying out kidnapping, hijacking, sieges, hostage taking or planning bomb attacks. Occasionally police or security services may ask editors to withhold information and there can be agreed news black-outs on kidnappings.

The real danger is that you report something or do something that makes a situation worse. Typically this is a problem when those who took hostages or were under siege could find out from broadcasters what was going on.

Because of mobile technology and social media the situation is more complex. The attacks in Mumbai a few years ago were covered live on television. The people planning the attack watched this and gave instructions via mobile phones to the terrorists who were holding hostages.


Broadcasters should normally seek the consent of parents or legal guardians (which can include teachers if filming or recording at a school) before interviewing children or young people, or otherwise involving them in a news story.

Most broadcasting organizations have guidelines about involving children and the overall aim to make sure they are treated fairly, are not misrepresented and are not exposed to ridicule or bullying or other damage as a result of appearing in a broadcast. Bribing children either to say things, or do things for the camera, is unacceptable and any accusations about this will be taken very seriously by broadcasters and the regulators.

Interviewing children – assuming consent has been obtained – demands that the reporter doesn’t go into areas that may be beyond the child’s understanding. Apart from that, you can interview children in much the same way you would interview an adult. That means you do not patronize them.

You should also try to be at the same eye-level, which means sitting down rather than stooping over them in a poise of superiority. In general, children under ten are more compliant and may give answers they think they need to give rather than their genuine opinions.

Be honest and clear about why you are talking to them. And finally, tell them when you expect it to be on air.


■ Ethics are now heavily considered in the broadcasting of news.

■ Facts Are Sacred, Comment Is Free. When In Doubt, Leave Out.

■ The law says you cannot lift material off the internet or anywhere else and use it just because it is there. Specific problems arise with what images are used and/or what is heard or spoken. Get permission.

■ In siege or hostage situations – do no harm. Always assume that the hostage takers can see and hear what you are broadcasting.

Reference: Broadcast Journalism, Techniques of Radio and Television News – Ray Alexander, Peter Stewart

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