ONA 2014: The Legal Panel

The Online News Association’s annual conference has grown in substance and topic each year, but one steadfast subject remains on the agenda: media law. While several aspects of this discussion did highlight issues specific to the United States, the overarching theme was that the rapid growth of digital journalism and technology leaves many questions regarding protection of confidential sources, what information is off limits to authorities, and when you are truly protected. True, many of these laws are specific to the United States, but today we can apply many of these concepts globally.

Michael Kovaka introduces panelists at ONA 14.

Michael Kovaka introduces panelists at ONA 14.

At a conference with cutting edge products lining the halls, the legal panel offered a glimpse into the work that must be done in legal systems not only in the United States, but around the world to catch up with the realities of digital newsrooms. Even in a country like the United States where First Amendment rights are enshrined, it is difficult to know when you are protected and when you aren’t.

Reminiscent of Watergate, Barbara Wall of Gannett Co. said that if you want to keep your sources confidential, “find a Rosslyn garage. That which does not exist can not be subpoenaed.”

After urging caution to all of the attendees when protecting sources, panelists discussed issues like prior restraint, cell phone warrants, the Privacy Protection Act, and newsroom social media policies,  the overarching theme prevailed: governments and law enforcement agencies have the power to obtain your information.

“Wherever fear goes, bad law follows.” -Gregg Leslie

If the government wants to know who your sources are, they will. “The more important your story is, the less you are going to be able to do to stop them,” said Gregg Leslie of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

While the legal panel did not delve into similar issues throughout the world, we know that government surveillance runs rampant in countries like Russia, where independent media outlets and journalists struggle to simply do their jobs on a daily basis.

For more information about this event and to hear more details about this conversation, please click here. 

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