Journalism and Mass Communication © Kalyani Suresh




The first freedom that goes whenever a dictatorship of any kind assumes power is the freedom of the press. The press is a gigantic force that governs the activities and opinions of the world. Thus it has a great responsibility of uplifting and enlightening humanity. The press must have a respect for truth and should adhere to a code of ethics to preserve the bond of mutual trust and respect between journalists and the people.

Freedom of press is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is the right to know and not a special privilege of a few people in power. The media all over the world are governed by certain laws and code of ethics. A few terms that one comes across while discussing media/press laws and ethics are given below:


Defamation defined by the Faulks Committee (1975) “shall consist of the publication to a third party of a matter which, in all circumstances would be likely to affect a person adversely in the estimation of reasonable people generally.” The defective traditional press definition, only used as a rule of the thumb, that defamatory matter was copy which brought a person into ‘hatred, ridicule or contempt’.

Eg: Youssoupoff vs MGM Pictures Limited (1934): In a film made by the defendants there was a suggestion that the plaintiff, a Russian princess had either been raped or seduced by Rasputin. The princess was living in exile in Paris when the film appeared and she sued successfully because the defendants could not prove either of the suggestions they had made. They argued however that the people seeing the film would not hate, ridicule or feel contempt for the princess. Their argument was rejected because she could not show that certain friends avoided her more out of pity to save her embarrassment if the allegations were true and that she was being shunned without moral discredit on her part.

Defamation is of two kinds: Libel and Slander. Defamation is a tort (civil wrong) while slander or libel are allegations.


According to the American and English Encyclopedia of Law, a libel is a malicious defamation expressed either by writing or printing, or by signs, pictures, effigies or the like; tending to blacken the memory of one who is dead or impeach the honesty, integrity, virtue or reputation, or to publish the natural or alleged defects of one who is alive and thereby expose him to public hatred, contempt, ridicule; or to cause him to be shunned or avoided, or to injure him in his office, business or occupation.
Libel may be committed by mere insinuation. Also, allegory and irony may be libelous. The following list of words from the Scripps-Howard Synopsis of the Law of Libel and the Right to Privacy by Bruce W. Stanford are ‘red flag’ words that may lead to libelous suits if not handled carefully in news stories:

a)- Jekyll-Hyde personality
b)- Ku Klux Klan
c)- Peeping Tom
d)- Illegitimate
e)- Plagiarist
f)- Illicit relations
g)- Humbug
h)- Ex-convict
i)- Bribery
j)- Hypocrite
k)- Drug addict
l)- Defaulter
m)- Double-crosser
n)- Altered records……etc.

Damages resulting from libel suits may be of three kinds:
a)- General(when injury is recognized as the natural consequence of such publication and proof of injury to reputation is given)
b)- Special (when the plaintiff can prove particular loss)
c)- Punitive/Exemplary (inflicted as punishment for proved malice by the offending publication)

Defenses against libel are of five kinds:
a)- Truth/Justification
b)- Privilege
c)- Fair comment without malice (protects expressions of opinions on public interest matters)
d)- Absence of malice
e)- Prompt publication of retraction by newspaper in which the "offending news" appeared

Slander is a form of action where defamatory meaning comes from spoken words or gestures.

There are some important distinctions between slander and libel:
1. Libel, if it could cause a breach of peace is both a crime and a tort
2. The injured party need not show any actual financial loss in libel. The court presumes damages. Slander however requires proof of monetary loss (called special damages), except in four cases:
a)- a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment
b)- a contagious disease which might prevent others form associating with the plaintiff (applicant)
c)- adultery relating to a woman or girl
d)- words which belittle a man in relation to his office, business or profession.

Journalists are bound by a code of ethics that does not allow them to reveal their sources of news. But nowadays journalistic defendants in libel actions are handicapped by the growing inclination of judges to grant plaintiff requests that they be compelled to reveal their sources of information. Thus journalists have to arm themselves with rules that allow them to thoughtfully deal with confidential sources. It is wrong to argue that stories such as Watergate would have remained buried if it had not been for some ‘deep throat’ source.

News cannot be copyrighted, but the actual wording of an account of the event can. A newspaper that wishes to rewrite or quote a copyrighted article appearing in another publication either buys the copyrighting privileges or requests permission to quote. Credit must be given to the original source. If the copyright is purchased, then the credit line appears at the top of the article. Articles in magazines and books are often copyrighted but newspapers are careful in quoting such material in order to steer clear of violating copyright privileges.

Duration of Copyright
The time period till which the copyright rules are valid depends on whether the work is published during or after the lifetime of the author, or whether the work is a photograph. For works published during the author’s lifetime, copyright runs for the life of the author plus 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which he/she died. Works published after the death of the author, copyright runs for 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work is published. For photographs, copyright runs for 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the photograph was first published.

If any substantial part of the copyright work is reproduced without the permission of the copyright owner, infringement occurs.

Remedies for infringement
Remedies include:
1. an injunction, i.e. a court order that prevents the infringer from repeating the breach of copyright. Repeating the infringement results in contempt of court.
2. damages, wherein the copyright owner seeks to recover the money he/she has lost by the infringement.
3. an account of profits, wherein the true owner claims an amount of profit made by the infringer, not the value of the infringing material.
4. criminal prosecution

A student of journalism is encouraged to be as open-minded and objective as possible. This is to prepare him/her to be free of bias and prejudices, conscious or unconscious. The reporter should be aware of the importance of stereotypes, taboos, superstitions and other factors influencing values and opinions. A reporter's power is something that has the ability to draft a certain mindset in people. Thus integrity, accuracy and objectivity, and fair play are needed in high doses.

Responsibility: To serve general welfare and the public’s right to know is the prime mission of the mass media. Journalists who use the media and their professional status for their own selfish needs violate a high trust.

Freebies and Payolas: Reporters covering large meetings and events have access to a whole lot of material advantages and necessities such as gifts, favours, free travel, special treatment and privileges. Newspapers have different opinions about the limit to which these ‘freebies’ can be accepted by the reporter without letting them bias his/her reporting in favour of the party offering these freebies.

The Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi, has a code of ethics as follows:
"The Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi, believes the duty of journalists is to serve the truth.
We believe the agencies of mass communication are carriers of public discussion and information, acting on their Constitutional mandate and freedom to learn and report the facts.
We believe in public enlightenment as the forerunner of justice, and in our constitutional role to seek the truth as a part of the public’s right to know the truth.
We believe those responsibilities carry obligations that require journalists to perform with intelligence, objectivity, accuracy and fairness."


Review Quiz


[Your opinion is important to us. If have a comment, correction or question pertaining to this chapter please send it to appropriate person listed in contact information or visit forums for this course.]

Previous: Broadcast communication Next: Corporate communication