Some EPA members have asked for guidance on securing permission from people mentioned in articles. The following questions were sent to editors of some of the largest publications/organizations represented in the EPA membership.
- What is your publication doing in regard to securing permission from real people who are used in stories and articles?
- Do you require written permission from the subjects or other persons mentioned in an article?
- Do you have a policy for your writers when they write about people?
- Is there potential media liability due to legal matters arising from people written about?
- Do privacy laws apply to stories/articles posted or printed in the past?
Responses were received from:
- AG News (Assemblies of God)
- Answers Magazine (Answers in Genesis)
- Christian Chronicle (Churches of Christ)
- Cru Storylines (Cru)
- Decision Magazine (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association)
- Facts & Trends (LifeWay)
- Influence Magazine (Assemblies of God)
- Religion News Service (RNS)
- Voice of the Martyrs Magazine (Voice of the Martyrs)
The following responses are presented as practices and should in no way be construed as legal opinion. We have chosen not to identify the comments by magazine title.
EPA is co-sponsoring an upcoming webinar (May 2020) on legal issues where these questions and others will be addressed. The session will be led by Craig Gipson of the Flagler Law Group and hosted by Magazine Training International.
When we interview people who are volunteering at our events or who have responded to the invitation at the end of the meeting, we clearly identify ourselves as writing for ___________ magazine, and we feel free to use their comments unless they tell us otherwise. These people’s comments are usually just a sentence or two in our article, if we use them at all, and we don’t always give the person’s full name, so the people aren’t always identifiable. When we quote a person at length or do a profile article, we send them the article in advance so they can approve it or point out any errors that need to be corrected. When people write articles for us, we send them a release form to sign in addition to sending the edited and designed article for their review.
When we write about political leaders and people involved in lawsuits or public disputes, we don’t necessarily try to contact them for permission to mention them.
Aside from what I’ve described above, another point is that we don’t fully identify people under age 18 without a parent’s permission.
These are good questions. Frankly, I don’t think we do anything as far as signed agreements. When we profile someone, we run the articles by the subjects by email to make sure the articles are accurate. (When our publisher writes on someone in his opening column, he asks for permission by email.) Otherwise, in a news report we share public knowledge as the right of a free press.
I’m not aware of any privacy laws that might get us in trouble with the kinds of things we report, but I will be checking with our legal counsel to see if we might have overlooked something, and I’ll be curious to learn what more you learn!
Our situation is different than most other publications, as we have other considerations.
We have the subject’s permission as documented by our field staff in culturally appropriate ways. Subject’s leaders (e.g., pastor or ministry leader) must be in agreement with the information being released. Our leaders must evaluate the subject’s story for verification/credibility and no unnecessary risks. We must have unanimous approval from the field, editorial and executive staff. Any one of these individuals has veto power if not in agreement with releasing the information.
Regarding media liability and privacy laws, we consult with our legal counsel.
Sources realize they are being interviewed for an article in ____________. Consenting to the interview is, in essence, giving us permission to publish their account. We don’t secure any kind of written permission from them. We do require staff and writers to send a prepublication review copy to sources. This isn’t to allow the interviewee to rewrite the article, but rather merely to assure the accuracy of details and quotes. Our freelance writers receive standard writer guidelines and an individualized assignment sheet for every story.
We have come across a couple of potential pitfalls in running stories. One is naming minors or showing their faces in photos. Parental permission is required in both cases.
The other is identifying someone who may have committed some abuse that hasn’t been legally proven. For instance, if a young man says, “My father was an alcoholic,” we don’t just go with that if the person is alive (if he’s dead, it’s not potentially libelous). So we would either drop such a reference, or, if it’s essential to the story, try to be ambiguous. We might say he grew up in a dysfunctional home or that he had various relatives who drank to excess. But calling someone an alcoholic, even if he isn’t identified by name, could be troublesome. Along the same lines, we can’t quote a young woman saying, “My father sexually abused me.” If he is in prison for raping his daughter, that is factual and reportable. But if no charges were ever filed, it’s better to either write around it or say she came from a dysfunctional home. We also might say something like, “She says a male relative abused her.”
We make sure anyone we interview knows who the reporter is and why we are contacting them. This is aided by the fact that everyone who takes part in an event is told at some point that they might be photographed, videotaped or quoted. If they want to be exempted, they need to let the event leaders know so they can inform us. But even so, we get a verbal okay for our planned use of material before every interview.
We don't seek written permission for quoting someone or reporting about them. We do seek a signed photo/video permission form from our primary subjects.
We have a lot of policies that are just basic journalism—be truthful, only quote exactly what they say, etc.
Of course there is potential liability. Almost no one we cover would be considered a public figure, so if we said something untrue or misleading, or if we libeled them, we would be liable. A writer or editor might make a mistake or quote one source about another in a way that would be defamatory. To avoid this, we try to cross check with everyone after the story is edited to make sure there are no errors. This includes at least four steps:
- We send a list of facts (age, job title, etc.) to anyone we report about and ask then to confirm the info.
- We send specific quotes to anyone we quote and ask them to confirm that they said those words.
- We send the whole story to the main person or people we are reporting on so they can confirm that the story as a whole is accurate.
- We try to have a ministry leader who knows the whole story also see all we have written to confirm the accuracy.
These steps sometimes cause problems as people sometimes want to rephrase quotes or even rewrite the story, so we are very firm that we are only asking about factual accuracy as the article was written by a professional writer and edited by a professional editor.
This is not legal advice, but only our practices.
We do not require written permission from subjects being written about in an article. When we request interviews with people we let them know it’s for an article that will be published for the public. But we don’t get written permission.
We have a contract that all of our writers sign when they take an assignment. In that it says that they hold responsibility for the content in the article being true.
I’m sure there are potential liabilities. That’s why accuracy is so important.
We don’t have anyone sign any kind of releases. We treat our coverage as protected under freedom of the press and try to adhere to the highest standards of journalism and Christian ethics.
At ______________, and most publications where I have worked, we require our reporters/writers to identify themselves as journalists and to tell people that they are working on a story. That’s usually the first line in an email contact—and the first thing a reporter would say to a source when calling on the phone. Using a recorder often helps, with permission from the person we are interviewing
Once that happens, we operate under the presumption that everything is on the record. We also work every hard to confirm everything we are told—with documents and on the record sources. If a source makes accusations against someone else, we always try to reach that person.
We don’t ask for written permission (with one caveat—we do have a grant for some profiles that requires permissions—but that’s because the interviews are being used in a research project).
We have insurance for our reporters. We also have legal counsel—and, at times, will have that counsel review a story to highlight any potential legal concerns. This usually happens when we publish an investigative piece.
On privacy, we generally treat anything published online to be public. We do consult legal counsel on this if we have a question.
The types of articles we commission, online and print, are generally more prescriptive, theological, and pragmatic than they are narrative, biographical or news-story based. I can’t recall a specific article in the past 25 years where we specifically made reference to another minister or person that would require us to ask permission to run and article in which they were mentioned. We recently edited out of a soon-to-be published article the names of former church leaders who had run into moral and ethical problems in years past. It’s not been our practice to cast individuals within our own ranks, or outside our ranks, in a negative light.
Posted Oct. 18, 2019