Media Law Conference at Stetson University, Tampa

06/04/07 Seán Kinane
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Last Friday WMNF reported on the 2007 Media Law Conference that was in progress at Stetson University College of Law’s Tampa campus. It brought together people from both professions to discuss the changing relationship between the law and the media. This evening, WMNF’s Seán Kinane brings you more from that conference.

The Media Law Conference focused on several topics including Florida’s Sunshine Laws, when reporters become news, the ‘false light’ doctrine, and the changing relationship between the law and the media.

Jerrianne Hayslett feels that the news business has changed in the last few decades. She is a Media Relations Consultant but in the past has been a newspaper reporter and the director of public information for Los Angeles County Court. Hayslett said that television news has had to become more sensational. And FOX News host Greta Van Susteren said that trials could be a way for television to achieve the kind of drama that ratings require. Here, Hayslett explains why media have changed followed by Van Susteren’s response.

“I think the reason is the ratings race and for readership. People really disagree with that. But I think the foundation for that was laid, I don’t know, in the 70s or 80s, I can’t remember when it happened. But, when television news was no longer loss leader and was expected to be part of the ‘ratings game’ if you want to call it that. And so they had to pull their own, had to pull in the ratings. And how do you do that? You become more sensational. You do things that attract attention, you become more entertaining.” Van Susteren - “But trials are sensational. They are by their very nature: they’re dissention, they’re crisis, they’re emotion, they’re all that. ” Hayslett - “Absolutely.”

One panel discussion dealt with false light cases, in which the subject of a media report thinks that her reputation has been blemished by the slant of the report even though it was reported truthfully. False light cases are different from defamation cases in which a reporter is accused of publishing things that aren’t true. The case of Gannett v. Anderson, in which a false light claim has been filed against a newspaper, will be heard soon in the Florida Supreme Court. Attorney Larry Turner, who defends media outlets and reporters from false light accusations, thinks that the Court might decide to do away with false light.

“I think that there is a clear trend towards either getting rid of False Light as a separate tort or at least conforming False Light to the laws involving defamation rather than invasion of privacy. And I think it’s heading that way for logical and good reasons. And that is it doesn’t make sense to basically have two separate torts that arise from the same set of circumstances.”

But attorney C.K. Hoffler, who represents clients who have accused media of false light violations, thinks the Florida Supreme Court will clarify what False Light is rather than abolish it.

Another panel discussion dealt with the issue of when reporters become the subject of news, including when they go to jail to protect their sources. But prosecutors need to use more discretion before issuing a subpoena to members of the media, according to Stetson Law Associate Dean Ellen Podgor.

“Should a federal prosecutor, should a state prosecutor, be trying to get information from the press? And I think that’s the most important question that needs to be answered. And I think it’s a question that the press needs to start asking. Whether a prosecutor who has enormous discretion … should be using that discretion to try to get that information from the press in the first place. … Or should a prosecutor, more appropriately, do the investigation, the hard-work investigation, to get the same kind of information that that reporter was able to get.”

Florida’s Sunshine Law and Public Records Law are supposed to make access to government records easy for reporters. But every year more and more exemptions to Florida’s Open Government Laws are passed by the legislature, which is making things too complicated, according to media law attorney Allison Steele.

“The entire process of getting access to records is woefully over-lawyered. It’s almost to the point today where a reporter cannot get a records-request responded to without a lawyer for an agency having reviewed all of the records to see if an exemption applies. That’s a really sad direction that the [Florida Sunshine] Act is taking but again, it’s going that way because of so many exemptions that are so complicated and that so nobody understands.”

But even though Florida’s Sunshine Laws can be clouded over with exemptions, Jerrianne Hayslett still feels that Florida is a good place to be a reporter, especially when it comes to access to the courts.

“The media in Florida, you’ve got it good. I use Florida as an example whenever I’m talking about access to the court system. You really have, I think, the most accessible system in the country. A former Florida journalist got a job with the L.A. Times assigned to the court system and he groused constantly because it was such a closed system: ‘We don’t do things this way in Florida and I’m going to change this.’ And so forth.”

To learn more about the Media Law Conference, visit its website, www -dot- law -dot- Stetson -dot- edu -slash- conferences -slash- media law.

For WMNF News, I’m Seán Kinane


Media Law Conference

Florida’s Sunshine Law and Public Records Law - Florida’s Open Government Laws

White Collar Crime Prof Blog - Stetson U College of Law Associate Dean Ellen Podgor

Media Law Prof Blog

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