Legal and Ethical Questions to Consider When Creating an Online Presence

Weighing benefits and negatives of legal and ethical considerations before creating an online presence is an important part of expanding student media’s outreach.

Sarah Nichols made strong points with her recent Checklist for Digital Media for advisers to use to get ready for next year.

I’d like to briefly piggyback on that with some points students and their journalism programs need to consider as they create an online presence. Within the points, they should ask themselves these questions:

What is your mission with an online presence? As in print, you want to offer strong content and you want good ways to tell your stories. But will you simply mirror print media? Will you report breaking news? Will you be able to give your readers more depth and better explanations than you do in print? How can the two work together to tell complete stories? Will you include use of social media? What multimedia tools will your site need to achieve this mission?

What legal and ethical issues do you need to keep in mind? Will school servers and policies allow for these tools? Is student access to the Internet filtered? Will this interfere with your online planning and, ultimately, your ability to be accurate and thorough media? Will you allow comments to your content, from news to viewpoints? Will you monitor them? Should you monitor them? What if you do not monitor them?

What is forum status of school-operated websites? If you are using school servers, will you be able to have the same forum status as corresponding print media? The Journalism Education Association and Student Press Law Center clearly urge the same forum status for online and print policies. Of course, both groups and every major scholastic journalism organization argue that only a status of “designated public forum for student expression” fully empowers student learning and community education. Will that work on school servers?

What are your school’s guidelines for publishing names and faces? Some school officials have established policies stating school sites will not give names or use student faces.  How will this affect your ability to report fully, honestly and accurately if there is such a requirement? Rulings by the U.S. Dept. of Education and information from the SPLC show that names and faces are not educational records, thus creating no legal reason to keep them from school websites. Additionally, what steps are needed to clearly show viewpoints expressed on the site are not those of the school? What steps will you take to clearly separate viewpoint from objective reporting?

What is content ownership status of school-operated websites? Do your school’s existing policies encourage and allow student decision making on websites housed on school servers? Understanding this status ahead of time enables you to decide whether housing your online presence on school servers is a good choice for fully informing your various audiences. If use of school servers would result in prior review, should you consider going off-site? What issues will that raise for you and for school officials? What arguments should you envision making to allow your publication to be housed off school servers?

Creative multimedia tools enhancing storytelling are the bells and whistles of good student media websites. But as you plan their use, don’t forget to have in place the bones and muscle of any student publication: anticipating legal and ethical issues that allow the rest to make your site informative and enlightening.

For more information on legal and ethical issues in scholastic media check out the Scholastic Press Rights Commission blog.