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Cover Your Assets

Cover Your Assets

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Amy Wallace recently wrote about the minefield surrounding her reporting on vaccines for ReportingonHealth. Two months after her November 2009 Wired cover story "An Epidemic of Fear: One Man's Battle Against the Anti-vaccine Movement" was published, she was sued. Though the lawsuit was dismissed, Wallace's experience is food for thought for any journalist covering health. She writes:

I've been a journalist for more than half my life. I have written for newspapers and magazines, I have been a reporter, an editor, a staff writer, an editor-at-large. Never before have I been a defendant. I am careful. I am meticulous. Above all, I work hard to be not just factual, but fair - to put bits of information in their proper context.

But here's the simple truth: If someone wants to sue you, they can. Easily, too.

So this week at Career GPS, I'm looking for answers to the question that has made its way around the Internet since Wallace's essay ran: How can journalists protect themselves and their assets from lawsuits? Job opportunities are at the end of the post. Keep up with Career GPS by signing up for weekly newsletters or via RSS.

I posed the question to lawyer David Ardia, fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and director of the hugely useful Citizen Media Law Project (CMLP).

"Health care is an area where there is a propensity to sue," Ardia told me in a phone conversation. Money and emotions make a "volatile mix" so it is important for journalists covering health and medicine to think about protecting themselves in case of legal action against them, he said.

CMLP is geared toward online and "citizen media" but the laws and liabilities for nonprofessional publishers are largely the same as for professionals. In large news organizations, employees can typically look to their employers to defend them if they are sued. In these situations, journalists' personal assets are not usually on the line. Freelancers may or may not be able to depend on news organizations to back them up in a lawsuit. Considered independent contractors, they might have to pay for their own legal defenses and their assets could be in danger if they lose their case.

Here are four tips to consider that might help you continue important investigative work while protecting your assets:

Consider media liability insurance. There are a range of products available depending on the size of your business, with premiums varying depending on the type of work being insured. These plans, geared toward professional journalists, can cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per year and often exclude coverage of investigative reporting. CMLP has a good explanation of these products, while the Online Journalism Review lists several providers. Some journalism associations, such as the National Association of Press Women and Media Bloggers Association, offer plans or discounts to their members.

Create a legal entity around your work. If you are going to be repeatedly entering into contracts, it makes sense to create a limited liability company (LLC) to shield your personal assets, Ardia says. "That's a simple step that anyone doing this as a profession should consider," Ardia said. Learn more about LLCs and how to form one at CMLP.

Ardia also suggests that professional journalists familiarize themselves with the Online Media Legal Network, a group of lawyers and organizations that provide legal services for free or for reduced fees to journalists who have financial need. They explain the types of services they provide in their FAQ. Your local bar association might also offer services and advice for journalists.

Keep good records. Make sure you have an email trail or contracts that show that the journalism is being performed by your LLC, and not by yourself as an individual. This can be as simple as a footer in your email, says Ardia, but "the best situation is to have a freelancer agreement. If you leave it ambiguous, you never know how it's going to turn out." If the outlets you write for do not have formal agreements, you can come up with your own, which can include provisions about rights and also a line guaranteeing the outlet's support in case you are sued for the work you perform as an independent contractor.

If you are a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, you can access a 2008 essay by Jane E. Allen which has good advice for revising freelance agreements and contracts to your benefit. The American Society of Journalists and Authors offers a primer and suggestions on dealing with indemnification clauses, which shield publications from liability for your work.

It is also important to keep good records while reporting. When collecting private information about someone's medical history, Ardia says that it's important to get consent. Verbal consent is legally sufficient, but written consent is always better. Before you record an interview, be sure to specify that you are publishing the material you collect and ask permission to record. Then, ask for consent to publish again after recording starts. Even if you are not recording, it's good to follow up on your interview with an email that makes clear that you have consent to use what your sources have told you.

Familiarize yourself with the legal issues that might arise in your work. Understand laws that are applicable; in the health field, defamation and privacy laws will often come into play, says Ardia. CMLP explains these laws in plain language in its legal guide. The reading room on the website of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provides additional in-depth information, while NewsU has a free course about online media law, including defamation, copyright and privacy. Ardia is creating a new self-directed course on news gathering liability with NewsU to be released in December.

At the end of all this advice, however, Ardia is quick to say that fear of litigation should not stop you from doing important work. "The number of people who actually face lawsuits is small," he says, likening reporting to owning a car: even if you drive almost every day without getting into an accident, if it does happen, you'll be glad you were prepared.

The journalism business is changing and journalists should not rely solely or blindly on news outlets for their legal protections. They have to think of themselves as professionals and wear the hats of a lawyer, accountant and journalist to build security into their careers. How do you cover your assets? Share your tips and questions in comments. If you have ideas for future posts or listings you'd like to see here, log in and let me know.

As always, here are opportunities in health media for your perusal.

Jobs, Fellowships and Awards

Editor, ChickRx (free registration required at
Location: San Francisco, California
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Freelance Medical Editor, The Learning House Inc. (via
Location: Louisville, Kentucky
Status: Freelance
Medium: Online Education

Healthcare Public Affairs Professional, Widmeyer Communications
Location: Washington, D.C.
Status: Full Time
Medium: Communications

Health Care Reporter, The Tampa Tribune (via
Location: Tampa, Florida
Status: Full Time
Medium: Newspaper

Manager of Interactive Marketing, Digitas Health
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Status: Full Time
Medium: Marketing

Media Relations, Pan American Health Organization (WHO)
Location: Washington, D.C.
Status: Two-Year Contract
Medium: Media Relations

Writer/Editor, DecisionHealth
Location: Maryland
Status: Full Time
Medium: Trade Publication

Internews' Earth Journalism Network Fellowships to attend UN Climate Change Conference (Nov. 27 – Dec. 11)
Eligibility: U.S. Earth Journalism Network members
Included: Travel to Cancun, accommodation, per diems, accreditation and special sessions
Deadline: Sept. 19, 2010
From the Website: "EJN fully respects the editorial independence of all journalists. Throughout the conference, Fellows are free to report as they see fit. EJN does require that they provide copies of all the stories they file during COP16 for posting on our website and that they show collegial attitude towards other Fellows. One of the main benefits of this program will be the opportunity for Fellows to exchange views and information with their journalistic peers from around the world."

Philip Meyer Journalism Award
Eligibility: Work published between Oct. 1, 2009 and Sept. 30, 2010 reported using social science research methods, entry fee $25-$115
Award: Cash prizes of $200-$500
Deadline: Nov. 1, 2010
From the Website: "The awards are in honor of Philip Meyer, professor emeritus and former Knight Chair of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Meyer is the author of Precision Journalism, the seminal 1972 book (and subsequent editions) that focused growing numbers of journalists on the idea of using social science methods to do better journalism. He pioneered in using survey research as a reporter for Knight Ridder newspapers to explore the causes of race riots in the 1960s."

Interactive Census Workshop (Dec 12-17, 2010)
Eligibility: Journalists with interest in multimedia
Included: Lodging and meals at UC Berkeley, but not travel
Deadline: Nov. 6, 2010
From the Website: "The KDMC at UC Berkeley is offering a customized visual storytelling workshop to train journalists on new ways to process data from the 2010 Census. Fellows will illustrate the information using visualization and mapping tools to create a clearer, more meaningful picture of the complex statistics gathered in the national survey."

REMINDER: U.S. Young Journalist Program, Fulbright Kommission
Eligibility: Must be a U.S. citizen, with academic achievement and a good proposal and good to very good German language skills
Award: 10 month stay in Germany with stipends and expenses, as well as language training
Deadline: Oct. 18, 2010
From the Website: "The approximately 10-month stay begins in September and typically consists of an initial research phase, during which the grantee becomes familiar with his/her project in a German setting, followed by one or more internships with German institutions of print or broadcast media."

REMINDER: Association of Health Care Journalists - Centers for Disease Control Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Professional journalists working in the United States
Award: Week of study of public health topics at CDC campuses, membership, travel, lodging and meals
Deadline: Oct. 22
From the Website: "The AHCJ-CDC Health Journalism Fellows will: Attend sessions on epidemiology, global disease prevention efforts, pandemic flu preparedness, climate change, vaccine safety, obesity, autism and more; tour the CDC director's National Emergency Operations Center; meet new sources on policy and research; learn how to tap the agency's abundant resources to produce better stories."


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Nowhere in your report or Amy Wallace's was it mentioned which district court she was sued in, but the location where such suits are filed makes far more difference than any other factor or factors discussed in your story.

Any such suit filed in a California court or in a federal court in California would have to survive an anti-SLAPP motion—which almost none do and which Wallace's would not have—which is designed to toss out libel and similar litigation that has less than an even chance of winning, and to do so early, before further proceedings, and to order the dismissed plaintiff to pay the harassed defendant's attorney fees.  This procedural protection, in force for almost 20 years, has almost entirely dried up defamation actions in this state.

Picture of Angilee Shah

Mr. Francke, this is a really great point. There is more information/background in the Californians Aware Guide to Journalism Law in California.

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The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors to serve as thought leaders in one of the most innovative and rewarding arenas in journalism today – “engaged reporting” that puts the community at the center of the reporting process. Learn more about the positions and apply to join our team. 


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