Law and Ethics in Digital Communication

The difference between law and ethics aren’t always clear cut. Especially, since they can sometimes overlap and conflict. In the area of digital communication, the lines between ethics and law may even be more blurred and thus the need for media professional  to understand especially important.The following will explain the difference between laws and ethics in digital communication, include examples of how they both can guide the behavior of media professionals and why is important for media professionals across fields to understand them.

Law and Ethics

Law and ethics both can be defined various ways, but to explain them simply; law is a set of rules that regulate what we should do and ethics are a set of principles that should guide what we should do. Within the boundaries of laws, there are also penalties or punishment that can be enforced and expected if laws are not observed. Because ethics, on the other hand, are principles, technically they really can not be enforced, but outcomes can also be predicted, assumed or expected. Both law and ethics are there to help define or determine what actions are right and wrong.

The Bill of Rights, in the United States Constitution, contains laws applicable to digital communication such as the  guarantee of  the “freedom of speech of the press” (Moore & Murray, 2012). In the digital age that we are in now when anyone can create a “news” blogs, reporters have personal social media platforms, and information or misinformation can spread across the world in seconds,  traditional journalists are expected to not only act lawfully but adhere to high ethical standards. Journalists have the freedom of speech of the press, as well their individual freedom of speech, which can difficult to manage. Ethical standards, such as The Washington Post Publishing Guidelines help media professionals in any field navigate the ever-evolving digital landscape. For example an excerpt from its “Be Professional” clause states:


Social networks are no place for the discussion of internal editorial issues such as sourcing, reporting of stories, and decisions to publish or not to publish. The same is true for opinions or information regarding any business activities of The Washington Post Company. …Nothing in these Standards should be interpreted as prohibiting communications protected by federal or state statutes (WP, 2011).

It would not be illegal for a journalist to discuss their sources on Facebook, but according to the Washington Post, it is unethical. And if a journalist did not adhere to this standard, they would not go to jail but they might get fired.

How law and ethics can guide behavior

Confidentiality of sources is an area where there is much conflict between law and ethics. It also illustrates how law and ethics have guided the actions journalist and why it is important for media professionals across fields to understand law and ethics.  The Washington Post-Standard and Ethics express a confidentiality standard that is seemingly inherent amongst journalist:

The Washington Post is pledged to disclose the source of all information when at all possible. When we agree to protect a source’s identity, that identity will not be made known to anyone outside The Post  (ANSE, n.d).

Confidentiality is also a legal matter. In the United States, tort law considers certain intimate relationships, such as husband and wife, doctor and client, and the like deserving of confidentiality protection. A wife, for example, can not be forced to testify against her husband in court (Moore & Murray, 2012). Since the colonial period, journalists have also considered their relationship with sources deserving of the same protection (Moore & Murray, 2012). The ethical standard that journalist hold in regards to confidentiality and tort law have both guided the actions of many individual journalist and organizations.

Moore and Murray (2012) also  provide an interesting example of Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter was subpoenaed, refused to testify in court and was found in contempt. After an unsuccessful appeal, Time magazine gave her notes to the case prosecutor. Even after being sentenced to jail,  Miller finally agreed to testify only after her source waived his confidentiality.  Miller believed keeping her promise to her source was the right thing to do, or the ethical choice, even if it was illegal. After Miller’s unsuccessful appeal, Time Magazine’s believed the right thing to do was to adhere to the law and not the ethical standard. In the long run, the conflict between law and ethics in confidentiality has lead to many states protecting the confidentiality agreement between journalist and sources with varying terms (Moore & Murray, 2012).

Importance of understanding law and ethics

This case also illustrates the importance for media professionals across fields to understand the law and ethical codes. Media professionals, such as journalist, publicists, spokespersons, federal agency employees should be aware of the laws and ethics that provide personal rights as well as the ethical standards and laws related to their field so that they can make informed decisions that help them perform their duty of providing the best service to the public. Social Responsibility Theory asserts that in exchange for freedom of government control media professionals must serve the public ( Baran, 2015). Part of this service is playing an important role in the democratic process. Journalist provide important information to the public that they would have no other way of knowing. And the public relies on journalist and the media to provide information about the community, country, and society they live in to also make well-informed decisions. The danger of not providing the public with unbiased complete information can be undermining to the democratic process. Also, adhering to legal and ethical standards is important to establishing and building credibility with the public they are serving.



ANSE (n.d)The Washington Post Standards and Ethics. Retrieved from

Baran, S. J. (2015). Introduction to mass communication: Media literacy and culture (8thed.).Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

 Moore, R.L.,Murray, M.D (2012) Media Law and Ethics (4th ed.)New York, N Y: Routledge

Washington Post [WP] (2011, September 1) Digital Publishing Guidelines. Retrieved from

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