Knowing Your Limits Even if the content of news reports is fair and accurate, a journalist’s newsgathering methods can land them in legal trouble. Obviously, a journalist, like every citizen, must not violate criminal laws to obtain information, but the line between criminal and non-criminal behavior is not always distinct. Even the total avoidance of criminal behavior in newsgathering might not immunize a journalist from legal challenge. While the law does not set clear boundaries between permissible and impermissible newsgathering practices, it does provide general guidelines to help you steer clear of most legal problems without sacrificing the assertiveness necessary for strong reporting. This brief section examines access to non-governmental places, both public and private, and discusses some problem areas of newsgathering, including impersonation, misrepresentation, and receipt of confidential documents. Access to non-governmental places The extent to which a journalist may permissibly engage in reporting or surveillance largely depends on the location. Generally, restrictions on newsgathering in private homes and private places are stricter than those for public lands or traditionally public areas. One of the first things you should do if you are denied access by government officials or owners of private property is assess your forum. Public Places A journalist is essentially free to gather news on public streets and in public parks, and anything that can be seen (and photographed) or heard on or from a public street is fair game. For example, a Maryland court has found taking a woman’s photograph from the street as she stood in plain view at her bedroom window does not constitute an invasion of privacy. However, the paparazzi-esque pursuit of particular subjects, even on public streets, has landed a few journalists in legal trouble, especially where the newsgathering implicates the privacy of children. The right to engage in newsgathering on public streets has usually been extended to other places where the public is traditionally welcome – such as airport terminals, flea market booths, and professional sporting events – but this right sometimes has not applied to private parties held in otherwise “public” places. Crime and Disaster Scenes The freedom to gather news in public places has extended to crime and disaster scenes in most cases. For example, a journalist may permissibly record an arrest on a public street, or in a courthouse or police station. This freedom may be limited if a law enforcement investigation or other official activity is still in progress.
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