1. What are the elements of a defamation claim, whether it is libel (written) or slander (oral)?
Defamation is a false statement of fact (i.e. not an opinion), published to someone other than the plaintiff of the defamation claim. A statement made on a television broadcast or in a newspaper article is clearly considered ‘published,’ but so too is an email or a text message. To be ruled defamatory, the statement must cause harm to a specific person. And since corporations are people, they count as well. In the U.S., it is the plaintiff’s responsibility to prove that the statement is, in fact, false.
2. If someone gives you her name and password to access her employer’s website, should you use that information to access the site?
No. Identity theft online is just as deplorable as identity theft in person. That said, if you are able to access a seemingly restricted area without lying or forging an alternate identity (say you just hit ‘Enter’ on the employer’s security page and are let onto the site), you are in the clear. If the company fails to take the appropriate precautions, that’s their problem. Similarly, if you come across a box of confidential files lying in a garbage can, you are completely within your rights to look at them; whoever threw them out forfeited their claim to privacy when they put the files out in public.
3. How much time should you give the subject of an article or video to comment before publication?
Give someone as much time to comment as you can, given your circumstances. If they can get their reply in before deadline, great. If they can’t, too bad for them. While it is important to provide both sides of your story, you must not give your subject control over your story. You must not feel any obligation towards your subject. Of course, “be a human about it;” as your Mom no doubt says, treat others as you would like to be treated.
4. What is the rule on reading back quotes to sources? (Something of a trick question)
There is no rule! Some veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists will tell you to never read back quotes; others will tell you to always read back quotes. There is no legal requirement to do it, but for accuracy’s sake, you may want to. If you do read back quotes, however, be sure to do so right after the interview. If you wait until you’re writing your story hours later, your source may want to change what he or she said (“I shouldn’t have said that; don’t put it in the story.”). That puts you in an awkward situation. Also, reading back a slew of quotes at the end of your interview does not tell your source what you’re going to write; calling your source to check the accuracy of one specific quotation will telegraph your story. You may then be disappointed when your story becomes front-page news–and another reporter’s name is in the byline.