Journalist's Guide

Misrepresentation Misrepresentation is the act of making a false representation for the purpose of deceiving, or causing another to rely on it detrimentally. A misrepresentation can be made in words, by conduct, and even by concealment or failure to disclose a relevant fact. Examples might range from telling a potential interviewee you have already interviewed their friend when you have not, to using a fictitious name to obtain credit information about a subject. Typically, those who feel they have been damaged by a misrepresentation will allege fraud and/or intrusion, one type of invasion of privacy. In practice, though, these misrepresentation claims do not often succeed. To establish a claim for fraud in connection with newsgathering, a plaintiff must typically show the reporter’s behavior was beyond what a person with a reasonable degree of skepticism toward journalistic methods might anticipate, and the reporter had an ulterior purpose beyond uncovering the story. In addition, the plaintiff must establish an injury as a result of reliance on the alleged misrepresentation. Plaintiffs have been similarly unsuccessful in maintaining claims for intrusion, because intrusion usually requires a violation of someone’s physical solitude or seclusion. Essentially, you will likely avoid liability if you steer clear of particularly egregious behavior or a pattern of misrepresentations. Of course, you can prevent lawsuits in general by keeping the white lies to a minimum. Maryland has statutes designed to prevent unauthorized access to medical and certain government records. One statute provides that persons who obtain certain government records by false pretenses, bribery, or theft are guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine. Another states that persons who obtain another’s medical records under false pretenses are guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine and possible civil damages. Impersonation Impersonation is the assumption of a false identity for the purpose of gaining access to sources and information. Though it often involves a grander scheme than misrepresentation, impersonation also rarely leads to liability for the journalist. Courts typically find in favor of journalists on trespass claims that arise out of impersonation because the journalist is not interfering with the ownership or possession of land. Fraud and intrusion claims are difficult to maintain for all of the reasons mentioned in the above section. Once again, impersonation may land you in a lawsuit and should be avoided, but it is unlikely your employer will be forced to pay damages unless the impersonation is especially outrageous (e.g., brandishing a knife while posing as an alcohol rehabilitation patient). Receipt of documents Requesting and receiving documents are daily tasks for journalists and are also an essential part of newsgathering. It probably goes without saying you have a good chance of being sued for invasion of privacy or “conversion” – essentially, stealing another’s property – if you obtain documents unlawfully. Conversely, if a journalist lawfully obtains truthful information about a


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