Test your online journalism law: 1 – the food that should have been binned

All this week I am going to be publishing examples of legal dilemmas that a journalism student might face (Read my previous post on students being publishers, and the responsibilities that come with that for the background). I’ll be using the hashtag #ojblaw throughout and live tweeting a discussion on Friday 10-12 UK time.

I hope you can comment on what a student publisher might do – and why.

Here’s the first:

Case 1: major fast food outlet selling food it should have binned

It is 4am and you are sat with a friend in a fast food chain outlet. This is a well known, global brand – you can choose either McDonalds or Burger King, because these things matter.

Your friend works for the same company, in another city. She turns to you and says:

“That food should have been thrown away two hours ago.”

She knows because she can see the timestamps on the food packaging behind the counter.

The next day you prepare to write up a news article about this.

You find some useful background: the company has published its own policy on how long food should be kept out, for example. You also have the Food Standards Agency report for the outlet (it was satisfactory).

Your headline reports just what your friend said: that the particular outlet was serving food that was hours old, and breaking its own guidelines in the process.

You have a quote from your friend, who is named, and her position as an employee of the fast food chain is mentioned. She is fine with this.

You seek a reaction from both the outlet and the fast food chain’s central office. Both refuse to comment, and you have included that in your article.

The questions

  1. What are the legal issues here – and what tests need to be met for them to be an issue?
  2. What defence could you mount?
  3. How likely is it that legal action would result?
  4. Would you publish – and why?

‘Answers’ and discussion in the comments

7 thoughts on “Test your online journalism law: 1 – the food that should have been binned

  1. Cleland Thom

    This is a tricky one … something to make you think. It highlights the dangers of making assumptions.
    Your friend has assumed the packaging actually contained the food that’s on sale now. But she could be wrong.
    If you published her claim and the fast food chain sued you, you would have to prove that the restaurant DID improperly sell old food. This would be hard to establish. Even if you photographed the packaging, you still may not be able to prove the food now on sale was originally in it.
    So you would be vulnerable under current defamation laws.
    You would be safer to publish the article when the new Defamation Act comes into force in a few weeks time.
    Under the new law, businesses can only sue if a statement caused, or was likely to cause, serious financial loss. They will probably have to provide documentary evidence.
    So you could demand to know, at the outset, what serious financial loss the business faced as a result of your article.
    If the claimant cannot establish this, then the action will fail to get off the ground.

  2. Paul Bradshaw Post author

    Khadijah M. Britton says on Twitter: Ack! I went to law school & am still unsure of how to deal with this – I’d shelve the story until I had talked to corporation.

  3. Charlie Beckett

    Publish it. Then when their lawyers get in touch, whip up a massive storm on twitter that is so bad for their brand that their PR department calls off the legal people. Job done. 🙂

  4. Pingback: #Tip: Test your online journalism law | Editors Blog | Journalism.co.uk

  5. Anneleen Ophoff

    I’m not sure what the differences between American and European/Belgian Law on defamation is. But what they always tought me, is to never publish without two reliable sources. You could argue that the policies you found, are your second source. But the Food Standards Agency report was satisfactory and the McDo/Burger King policy is not a source of any wrong doing.

    Thom Cleland is also right: there is no hard evidence the chain actually sells the old food. And what if it’s just this one restaurant? Would it be relevant enough to maybe get yourself in trouble?

    So I would probably wait to publish and 1: get them to sell me one of those old burgers and 2: get a 2nd source – why don’t you just confront the guy/girl who sold you some old burger and fries?

  6. Pingback: #Tip: Test your online journalism law | AM Report

  7. Paul Bradshaw Post author

    The ‘answers’:
    1. The main legal issue here is libel. The first test that needs to be met is if the article would be defamatory – that is, would it cause harm to someone (including a company). In 2014 that must be ‘substantial harm’, and in the case of a fast foot outlet you could say yes to both: it would harm their profits, assuming people decided to stop going there.
    2. The defence would normally be that the allegations were true. You would need to be able to prove it. As you only have the word of someone – no photos or documentation – then it would be theirs against the company in court, which isn’t much. At the very least you should get a statement signed by your source in case she refuses to testify later.
    3. It depends on the fast food outlet, but some have been known to be very quick to sue.
    4. See discussion above as to whether to publish. It doesn’t have to be a yes/no answer – a sound idea here would be to return to the outlet at the same time another night to take photos and any other evidence, before publishing.


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