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off the record: Usually means, “Don’t quote me.” Some sources and reporters, however, use it to mean, “Don’t print this.” Phrases with similar, and equally ambiguous, meanings are “not for attribution” and “for background only.” News Reporting & Writing (Eighth Edition) by the Missouri Group. Copyright 2005. Reproduced by permission of Bedford/St. Martins.

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Lesson Plans

Law, Libel & The Golden Rule: Law & Ethics for Photojournalists

Keely Lewis of Edinburg High School in Edinburg, Texas.

Keely Lewis
Edinburg High School
Edinburg, Texas

Title: Law, Libel & The Golden Rule Law & Ethics for Photojournalists

Topic of Unit

How can a student photographer avoid being sued for libel? Even if a photo is safe from libel, is publishing it OK ethically?

Overview and Rationale

Preparing tomorrow’s potential photojournalists goes beyond teaching them basic photo-graphy and writing skills. They must know the laws governing photographers, how to avoid being sued for libel and how to make sound ethical judgments while shooting.

Understanding Goals

  • Essential Questions
    • Where and when can a photojournalist legally take photogaphs?
    • What are the elements that must be present for libel to have taken place?
    • What is the difference between public and private figures as far as libel law is concerned?
    • How can someone defend themselves against charges of libel?
  • Critical Engagement Question
    • What ethical standards should a photojournalist or photo editor use in deciding whether or not to publish a photo that is not libelous but is potentially upsetting or embarrassing?


Activity 1 (1 class period)

  • With students working in groups of 3-4, have them read through some hypothetical situations involving photo law and discuss what they think is legal (See related Legal Considerations handout.). Then go through each situation and discuss before telling them the applicable law.

Activity 2 (1 class period)

  • Go through the elements that must be proven for a libel case to be successful:
    • Defamation
    • Publication
    • Identification
    • Falsity
    • Fault.
  • In small groups, have the students come up with descriptions of three situations where a publication could be sued for libel. They should be prepared to tell how the publication could defend itself and whether or not they think the suit would be successful. The class will discuss these scenarios.

Activity 3 (1 class period)

  • Have students work in small groups to compose a list of 25 people they consider to be famous.
  • With the full class, compile a comprehensive list, including politicians and news figures as well as stars and musicians.
  • Discuss that people considered public figures must prove actual malice while private figures need prove only negligence, reviewing the terms involved.
  • End the class by having students work together in their groups to write the 5 elements that must be necessary for libel to have occurred and why a public figure has a harder case to prove. Randomly call on one group member to share the group’s answers.

Activity 4 (1 class period)

  • Pose the question: What do we mean when we say that a person is ethical? Describe such a person and how they would handle some hypothetical situations in daily life. (Example: The cashier at Burger King gives you change for a $20 instead of $10. What should you do?)
  • Students working in small groups should come up with an answer to the question and three hypothetical situations that would demonstrate the use of good ethics.
  • Have them present these to the class. Then throw out some ethical dilemmas photojournalists might face and discuss them. (Example: You have missed a major awards ceremony but have the opportunity to restage some of the presentations. Would this be ethical?)

Activity 5 (1-2 class periods)

  • Have students pair off, one acting as a photojournalist and the other as a photo editor. Give each pair an ethical situation (See related Ethical Considerations handout.) and have them write out a short script showing their viewpoints about the situation.
  • If the editor decides not to run the photo, show the photographer’s reaction. Their decisions do not necessarily have to be ethical. Have the pairs present act out their scripts and allow the class as a whole to discuss them.


Students will take a short test on law and ethics (See related Photo Law and Ethics Test handout.).

Recommended reading and sources

"Photojournalism: The Professional’s Approach," Kenneth Kobre, Chapters 14 and 15

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