Should academics get compulsory training in media law?

Academics must avoid publishing material that is defamatory or infringes on copyright − but how much support do they get to navigate the minefield that is social media?

November 6, 2020
Copyright law
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Rare, these days, is the academic who does not tweet, share or post (and all manner of other exceedingly 21st century verbs) as if their life depended on it.

There is no doubt that digital platforms offer opportunities for academics to engage with the public, network with peers and share their insights like never before. But along with all the promotional opportunities provided by the web, there are also some pretty hefty pitfalls to consider − potentially devastating ones in fact. Defamation, copyright and libel are all dreaded legal terms that strike fear into the hearts of even the most experienced media editors.

In worst-case scenarios, falling foul of such legal pitfalls, such as infringing on someone’s copyrighted material, or defaming someone, even mistakenly (it was just a joke, right?) could not only lead to a big financial penalty for the individual or their institution, but also long-term damage to reputation, career and livelihood.

One of the first things to understand is that you definitely can be prosecuted for what you say and share online.

There is a mass of legislation out there that applies to anyone communicating online: The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; Protection from Harassment Act 1997; Malicious Communications Act 1998; Communications Act 2003; Defamation Act 2013.

Part of the danger is that social media and blogging platforms enable instantaneous self-publishing, unlike traditional media where content is filtered and cross-checked via eagle-eyed editors with legal training. This means that you, as a blogger or tweeter, probably have sole responsibility for what you publish.

So, in that light, it’s best to take a step back and make sure you carefully check the accuracy and impact of what you publish, even if it is only a 280-character tweet (perhaps especially so if that tweet is published at 11pm after three glasses of wine).

Despite the pitfalls (UK defamation and copyright cases have increased in the past decade, coinciding with the boom in digital access), institutions have become increasingly keen on pushing social media use among their staff.

This is understandable given the opportunity it provides to help raise the profile and reputation of academics and their work – and that of their institutions.

On the risk avoidance side of things, higher education establishments have also been moving to get ahead of the curve and promote good practice, providing documentation and workshops on blogging, copyright and other legal issues, as well as codes of conduct for publishing content online.

But how many are delivering compulsory media training tailored around the specific needs of their academics, especially when it comes to early career researchers (ECRs)?

I have been developing an interest in this subject in recent years while working as communications officer at Lancaster University, where, as part of my responsibilities, I’ve been advising academics and sharing resources on a variety of media communication topics. This has included creating a media skills training initiative for 15 ECRs working on a joint research project.

The training, which involves copyright in the digital age, etiquette and legal frameworks for social media networking, and defamation and libel, as well as practical media and communications skills, was recognised as best practice and, as a result, I hope to develop the programme for future delivery elsewhere.

As well as making researchers aware of the basics of defamation law, we have advised them to always review and check any content for dissemination thoroughly, and if they have any concerns to seek appropriate advice before publishing, because ownership rests with them.

It is especially important to be aware of the dangers of unverifiable statements, criticism and commentary on third parties, not to mention ill-tempered disputes or “banter”.

On copyright, we also advise researchers to be as risk-averse as possible and to use original media, such as graphics, photos and music, wherever possible, or to obtain explicit permission from the copyright owner. UK and international laws protect a wide range of content including images and music, so academics need to be very aware of the dangers of using others’ intellectual property.

Feedback from our work in this area has been positive, with the researchers appreciative of the advice they have received, and it has been satisfying to see them grow into responsible and gifted communicators (both on and offline) in a relatively short period of time.

Because of the demands on academics to be visible, connected and active online, even more so in our post-Covid world, it has rarely been more important for higher education institutions to consider formal training on legal frameworks and etiquette for communicating on the web as a compulsory training package for ECRs. Arming them with the ability to post productively will help grow confidence at a timely and crucial stage of their careers.

Alan Cole is communications officer at Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications. He previously worked as a writer and editor for UK publishers including Pearson Media and Northcliffe Newspapers.

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