Verification and Legal Issues

Many news outlets say they’re not comfortable trusting information that arrives via crowdsourcing. But those who are deeply engaged in the process say accuracy is seldom a problem. Newsrooms will undertake verification as needed. When ProPublica, for instance, uses an Agent Orange story from a Vietnam veteran, it takes care to ask for records documenting military service. But when WNYC asks about your sleep patterns, verification is not necessary.

Crowdsourcing does open doors to some legal issues. In building a crowdsourcing project, it’s important for a news organization to establish terms and communicate how community contributions will be used.

“When you’re soliciting information, you get to set the terms,” said Jennifer Dukarski, a media attorney at Butzel Long’s Ann Arbor, Michigan, office. “When they send stuff back to you, you can use it in any way that you told them you’re going to use it.” Most crowdsourcing practitioners advise being clear about your plans for the stories and data you collect.

Likewise, if a news outlet is capturing and using pictures or videos from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or another social media platform, the journalists must observe that platform’s terms and conditions regarding intellectual property. “Usually the people who created it will retain the rights and copyrights,” Dukarski said. (Eyewitness Media Hub is one new resource for best practices and sourcing, verifying, and obtaining rights to materials.) Journalists may also wonder if they have legal liability if a crowdsourcing contributor lies, defames, or libels someone. “As long as you’re not encouraging it or doing it yourself, but only acting in the capacity of providing space for people to express their views, you’re protected by the Communications Decency Act,” Dukarski said. Section 320 of that act gave web services broad immunity from liability for content posted by users.

Most often, however, journalists use crowdsourcing contributions as elements in reporting a story and not as discrete pieces of content populating a publishing platform.

Moderating or editing comments can be an area of concern. “When someone sends in a comment, if you start modifying and create defamation, then you own the defamation,” she said.

Dukarski also added that crowdsourcing can raise privacy issues. She recommends that media organizations “continue to be diligent and sensitive” about identifying people’s addresses, home phone numbers, and other personal information.

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