SNN Newsroom

Ethics and the Law

To assist you in following proper guidelines for gathering information on the internet, SNN has put together the following information on legal ethics, the law and copyright issues.

This is important information if you wish to publish your articles online.


The pen is mightier than the sword.

That was true when Edward Bulwer Lytton wrote those words in the 1800's. Words can have a powerful impact on other people.

However, with the World Wide Web, words are more powerful than ever. Someone can make a statement in India and it can be transmitted to New Brunswick in a matter of seconds.

If the statement is not correct, malicious or damaging, the impact is immediate and lasting.


That is why journalists must take their work seriously and recognize the impact they can have on their community. Many journalists have their own personal code of ethics -- a set of principles that guide the way they do their work. Their sense of ethics helps them determine what is fair when they write about others and sets standards for their own performance.

As student reporters you must also follow a code of ethics.

Most newsrooms have a formal set of rules of conduct for their journalists.

For example:

  • Some newspapers and broadcasters will not allow their reporters to accept gifts, meals or free services from people they meet through reporting. That policy makes it clear that reporters cannot be influenced by others as they do their stories.

  • Other news outlets refuse to let their reporters quote any "off-the-record" or unnamed sources in their stories. They want to ensure that all quotes and information can be tracked back to a specific person and that gives the story credibility among the readers.

  • Other newsrooms have specific guidelines for staff when it comes to covering issues that they have a personal interest in. For example, a person whose spouse sits on the school board would not be permitted to do stories related to the board's work.

Journalists are constantly being forced to consider ethical issues during their work days. As a student reporter you must always ask yourself if you are being fair and accurate in your reporting and if you are writing your stories in context.

It is important for you to set up a set of principles which can guide you in publishing your articles. Check out the Media Awareness website.


The Law: Libel and The Art of (not) Getting Sued
Libel is a published false statement that is damaging to a person's reputation. Like newspapers and magazines, the Internet is a permanent record and can be looked at over and over again. The key to avoiding a libel suit is to be able to prove anything you print in a court of law.


When reporting, you must remember not to use second-hand information. You can't get an accurate story from a friend of a friend of a guy who knows the guy who saw the accident they are reporting on. Get the facts from the source.

If you can't get an interview with a believable source, that's fine. You may have to go out and find a corroborating source to back up the previous person's comments. Even if he/she refuses to comment, the reporter can put it in the story. Make the refusal of a comment important.


Basically, when you are doing an interview, the person you are talking to will know that their comments are "on the record". That means that everything that they say is a source of information. He/she will ask to be "off the record" if they do not want their name associated with the information given. "Off the record" is a way of getting the information from the source, without letting the student's readers know it was him/her. You simply tell the information without attributing the source.

If the information was about the recent cuts to jobs in the government and the source was a minister in the cabinet, they could say "a source said that....."

If the source says to the reporter "I don't care what you print, I didn't do it", the source just told you that anything you print is all right with them, so print the story. You should record the date, time and place he/she said it, or tape record it.

Get information or facts from both sides of the story. Balance your opinions in print. If you can, you should get a source who is an authority on the subject. That gives believability to your story.


Opinion is all right to use if it is not your opinion. You have to save personal opinion for an editorial or entertainment reviews. Another person's opinion on your topic is fine to use even if the comment is a bad one. That's called fair comment.

Example: If you interviewed someone protesting the prime minister's decision to cut 25% of all student funding, the protestor could call the PM a "liar." You could print it under fair comment as it is not your opinion. But you have to make sure you attribute the statement.


If the information you are using is of public record, like a court case or a meeting of the government, all spoken words are of record and are written down, so you have a right to get information needed.



Copyright is a law giving rightful ownership to an original piece of work. These works could be books, movies, songs, essays, articles, letters, or poems. In Canada, original works are usually copyrighted when they have been published, or put in a permanent form for people to see.

Lucy Maud Montgomery's book, "Anne of Green Gables," or the song "Starseed," by Our Lady Peace.


As a student reporter you must give a reference to people whose work you put in a story. Creative people want to see that their work is identified as theirs and not someone else's.

When giving reference to someone's work, you must include the following:

  • The name of the writer, composer, artist, or owner
  • The title of the article, album, picture, or other work
  • The publishing or production company, or record label
  • The year it was created or published (if available)
  • Copyright symbol (©) is optional.

For example:

I'm riding down the street / I see a girl I'd like to meet / She looks my way, and I almost fall off my bike.

"I Hit A Tree"
Dave & The Bike Spokes
RubberTire Records ©1996

When doing a review, you should only use what you need to make your point. It would be silly to write out an entire song or a whole paragraph of an article because it's just too long for people to read.

Copyright protects your published news stories, too, by preventing others from copying the writing or opinions in your article.

However, information or ideas cannot be copyrighted, so it does not stop anyone from ever using that idea for another story . Other reporters can write news stories with the same topic, except they get their own quotes from other sources, or even interview the same sources you used.

For example:

When the space shuttle, Challenger, exploded during takeoff, everyone did stories about it, because it was important news. Most stories had similar information, only written differently.


Copyright Issues
As in any research project, you must provide an online bibliography of the resources you use in creating homepages. It is too easy to copy material from the web and forget to respect the intellectual property of others whether it is an article, a graphic or an audio file. Credit must be given to the authors; permission must be requested to use material and links must be provided to other people's sites as a courtesy for materials used.

Rules for you to remember:

1.. If you use an image/audio file from a collection on the Internet, you should always link back to that site as a courtesy, proof of source and acknowledgment of credit.
2. If you use an image/audio file from a collection on the Internet, you should always link back to that site as a courtesy, proof of source and acknowledgment of credit.
You can make your own original pictures and avoid any copyright infringements.
3. If you find a graphic you really like, you need to read the fine print for copyright information and request permission to use it on your site.
4. Use established formats for citing Internet resources.
5. If you copy part of an article, use pictures, or download sound or video clips that you find on the Internet, you must e-mail the Web page owner and ask to use it. As a reporter, it would be smart for you to do this, just so you don't get into any trouble later. A page owner may have gotten an article from someone else, so you need to make sure you get the real owner of the article and the real page it came from. If you have your sources covered, you should be safe from most legal matters. 
6. Give credit where credit is due by providing a bibliography on their homepages.
7. Again, do not take every bit of news you get from the Net as the truth. Anyone could say that a buffalo ran through Main Street but it doesn't mean that it really happened. Check your facts and ask more people about it, so you get more than just one person telling you what happened but several sources giving a viewpoint. Readers will believe it if you back it up with truthful sources.


To ensure safety on the Internet follow these 3 basic rules.

  1. Follow your school's Acceptable User Policies for Internet use by students to ensure that you are protected and understand online safety. If your school does not have a policy yet, a basic guide for students can be found at Staying Street Smart on the Web! Be street smart on the Internet by following these rules of online safety!

  2. Obtain parental permission to participate in Internet-based projects which use the World Wide Web both for research and the publishing of student-created work. Feel free to use or adapt the letters for your own needs.

    - Parental permission for participation in a Web-Based project (view sample)

    - Teacher Statement of Provision of Student Access to the Internet (view sample)

  3. When publishing your work or pictures, do not use your full names. If an e-mail is included make sure it's a general e-mail for your school or class and not a personal address.



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