Law and Ethics for Today's Journalist: A Concise Guide, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Law and Ethics for Today's Journalist

A Concise Guide, 1st Edition

By Joe Mathewson


240 pages

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Law and Ethics for Today's Journalist offers aspiring and working journalists the practical understanding of law and ethics they must have to succeed at their craft. Instead of covering every nuance of media law for diverse communications majors, Mathewson focuses exclusively on what's relevant for journalists. Even though media law and media ethics are closely linked together in daily journalistic practice, they are usually covered in separate volumes. Mathewson brings them together in a clear and colourful way that practicing journalists will find more useful. Everything a journalist needs to know about legal protections, limitations, and risks inherent in workaday reporting is illustrated with highlights from major court opinions.

Mathewson advises journalists who must often make ethical decisions on the spot with no time for the elaborate, multi-faceted analysis. The book assigns to journalists the hard decisions on ethical questions such as whether to go undercover or otherwise misrepresent themselves in order to get a big story. The ethics chapter precedes the law chapters because ethical standards should underlie a journalist's work at all times. There may be occasions when ethics and law are not parallel, thus calling for the journalist to make a personal judgment. Law and Ethics for Today's Journalist is user-friendly, written in clear, direct, understandable language on issues that really matter to a working journalist. Supplementary reading of the actual court cases is recommended and links to most cases are provided in the text. The text includes a fine (but purposely not exhaustive) bibliography listing important and useful legal cases, including instructive appellate and trial court opinions, state as well as federal.


"Mathewson's Law and Ethics for Today's Journalist is long overdue--featuring concise, practical coverage of media law and ethics that journalism instructors have been searching for. No longer will I have to adapt texts created mainly for law students to suit a class of journalists in training. The landmark First Amendment cases are here, as are the big ideas and ethical dilemmas reporters are bound to face on the ground. The research is thorough, the writing is clear, and students will learn plenty." -- Dick Lehr, Boston University

"Law and Ethics for Today's Journalist covers the essential areas of journalism law including libel, privacy, and access while retaining a sense of broader media law context. With universities moving toward merged law and ethics courses, Mathewson effectively tackles the challenge of creating a text that adequately serves both areas by paring down and sharpening the content to the most relevant information." -- Jason A. Martin, DePaul University

"Mathewson's book is well-written and concise, making its discussions of important journalism cases accessible to the average journalism student. Its focus on practical legal and ethical advice for the working journalist also makes it an excellent choice for any professor teaching a combined ethics and law class to journalism students." -- Derigan Silver, University of Denver

"Mathewson provides an excellent summary of legal issues that can affect working journalists … Written from a working journalist's perspective, the book offers a pragmatic approach to the legal conundrums reporters and editors might face while pursuing stories. Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates, professionals, general readers." -- Choice

Table of Contents

To the Reader: An Introduction

1. Courts and the Legal System

Sources of American Law

State and Federal Courts

Types of Law

Civil Law and Criminal Law

Anatomy of a Lawsuit

Court Opinions

2. Ethics, Root and Branch

Opportunities Forfeited

Success Under a Cloud

Classical Ethics

Professional Codes of Conduct

Concealment and Confidentiality

Conflict of Interest

3. Prior Restraint

Seditious Libel

Declarations of Press Freedom

Press Freedom Sustained

Prior Restraint Isn't Totally Gone

4. Libel

Seditious Libel and Civil Libel

New York Times v. Sullivan

Public Figures, Too

Private Plaintiffs

Actual Malice Proved

The Wall Street Journal in Error

Proof of Libel

Defenses to Libel

Product Disparagement

Internet Libel

5. Invasion of Privacy

American Origins

Five Privacy Torts

Intrusion upon Seclusion

Disclosure of Embarrassing Private Facts

6. Less Common Invasion of Privacy Torts

False Light

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress


Defenses to Invasion of Privacy Claims

Libel Plus Invasion of Privacy

7. Fair Trial v. Free Press

Prejudicial Pretrial Publicity

Gag Orders

Closed Courtrooms

Access to Court Documents

Cameras in Court

Crime Coverage

8. Anonymous Sources and the Journalist's Privilege

Federal Law

State Law

9. Copyright

The Copyright Act

Fair Use

Digital Millenium Copyright Act

On Using Fair Use

10. Access to Government Documents and Meetings

Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966

Open Meetings

Access to Prisons

11. Broadcast Regulation

Ownership Rules

Content Regulation

Cable and Internet Regulation

12. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Opening Wedge

Citizens United and Hillary


Super PACs

Hard Money and Soft Money


"Social Welfare" Organizations

Follow the Money

13. The Ethical Journalist

Promises, Promises

No Government Discrimination

Today's Environment

About the Author

Joe Mathewson teaches courses in the ethics and law of journalism in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. As a former Supreme Court correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, he is author of The Supreme Court and the Press: The Indispensable Conflict (2011, Northwestern University Press). He’s a contributor to, having written pieces on Chicago-based Supreme Court cases involving prominent lawyers. In Chicago, Mathewson covered business for The Wall Street Journal, was a WBBM-TV reporter, and served as press secretary to Illinois Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie. He authored a book on Chicago politics, Up Against Daley (1974), as well as op-eds and Sunday magazine articles for the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times. He has been a Cook County commissioner, a director of several community banks, an officer of a minority-owned broker-dealer, and a securities arbitrator for the National Association of Securities Dealers. Mathewson has degrees from Dartmouth and the University of Chicago Law School, and did graduate work in European politics and economies at the Bologna (Italy) Center of John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He has served ten years as a trustee of Dartmouth College.

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
LAW / Media & the Law
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Media Studies