What’s legal online and off

With so many outlets for content these days, broadcast lawyers are busier than ever. Jerry Fritz, legal counsel for the Allbritton stations, says the vetting process for TV news is actually faster and better than it used to be because he can read scripts and watch video online before stories go on the air. But Fritz told a session at the RTNDA convention last week that some things are more complicated in a 24/7 news world.

Rewriting scares me. For the morning news, they’ll change “third degree sexual assault” to “rape” to save time. But one’s a misdemeanor and one’s a felony. I’m reluctant to let Web people rewrite sensitive stories I’ve already vetted.

One of the most common questions today is about using material from the Web, broadcast attorneys say. “A Facebook screen grab is okay,” said CBS attorney Andy Siegel. “YouTube video? I’ll take 10 to 20 seconds.” But CNN counsel David Viglante warned that videos set to music are problematic. CNN wanted to air videos produced by soldiers in Iraq but decided not to because many of them included popular songs and there’s no “fair use” exception for music.

If you do use something you found on the Web, Siegal said, remember that the original poster still owns the content. “Fair use is a defense, it’s not permission. And when you take something without permission, don’t put a ‘courtesy of’ tag on it,” he warned. “It’s a lie!”

The attorneys told a few hair-raising stories about questions they’ve been asked by TV journalists. For a story on airport perimeter security, one local reporter wanted to do a stand-up near an airport holding a fake automatic weapon. The lawyer’s response: “How much do you value your life?”

And then there’s the legal danger that might be lurking in your email in-box. Imagine you get an email alleging someone is involved in child pornography and it includes a link. If you click on the link, you’ve possessed child porn yourself. And if you forward the email to anyone–even your news director–you’ve distributed it. “There is no wiggle room in the law,” Vigilante said. “If you get an email about child pornography, don’t open it. Call your lawyer.”

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