New media law text encourages ‘thinking like a journalist.’

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Review: ‘Media Law: A Practical Guide (Revised Edition),’ by Ashley Messenger

Reviewed by Carolyn Schurr Levin

“Media Law: A Practical Guide (Revised Edition),” by Ashley Messenger

Teaching media law to undergraduate journalism and communications students is challenging. The concepts are esoteric and complex, even for law students. For undergraduates, the laws often seem foreign and counterintuitive (tweets are copyrighted?!). Many of the media law textbooks and other resources are written by lawyers in language that seems directed to other lawyers or law students.

Luckily, in the mix of available course materials lies “Media Law: A Practical Guide (Revised Edition)”, by Ashley Messenger, who is NPR’s Associate General Counsel. This accessible and user-friendly book is an outlier. Although written by a lawyer, the language is direct and straightforward, exactly what you want for undergraduates, most of whom have never taken a law course before.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have been teaching media law in various iterations – with and without ethics, in person and online, to undergraduates and graduate students – for almost two decades. In my classes, I have used many of the available resources, including the first edition of Messenger’s book, as well as other media law textbooks. Some of them have worked; others haven’t. Messenger’s book works.

The vast majority of media law textbooks are organized in similar ways. They begin with a broad introduction to the law, have a couple of chapters on The First Amendment, and then are sorted by legal topic – libel, privacy, telecommunications, advertising, etc. Interestingly, the topics are often introduced in the exact same order. Many of the books include excerpts from court decisions and case studies.

Although Messenger’s book broadly follows this general format, it is decidedly different. It puts the legal concepts to practice, blending legal definitions with practical advice (hence the “Practical” in the title). The unique structure of the book focuses on “what you do as a reporter, instead of just legal theory,” Messenger said. “Instead of ‘thinking like a lawyer,’ I think like a journalist,” Messenger writes in the book’s Preface. The major emphasis is on practical realities with less emphasis on caselaw and legal theories.

Undergraduate students “don’t need a treatise,” Messenger explained. “My goal is to sensitize students to the issues so that they know when they need to find a lawyer.” The book’s sections reflect that sensibility. “What Can You Be Sued for? (And Are There Related Criminal Charges?),” the Part II section heading queries. “How Does One Get Information to Publish?” the Part III section heading asks. The Copyright chapter is framed as: “Issues with Creating Content or Using Other People’s Content.” And, there are separate chapters on the use of photos and the use of music, issues that arise on a seemingly daily basis for communications students.

Messenger introduced the first edition of her book, “A Practical Guide to Media Law,” published by Pearson Education, Inc., in 2014. She had been teaching media law to undergraduate students in the Journalism School at American University since 2002, and noticed consistent stumbling blocks for her students. There were certain concepts that the students just weren’t grasping, Messenger said, including the difference between civil and criminal principles, the differing roles of government and private decision makers, and issue spotting. So, after a few semesters of teaching, she reorganized her course materials in a way to increase student understanding. Her class outlines became the first edition of her book.

The first edition, though, became “badly outdated” as important new Supreme Court decisions have been issued in the past few years. With a new publisher, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., Messenger has updated and reorganized the first edition to include new cases and statutes, to incorporate suggestions that adopters have given her on the first edition, and to streamline sections. For instance, the copyright section deemphasizes information about copyright trolls such as Righthaven and includes new image tracking software. The trademark section has been rewritten to reflect the 2018 Supreme Court decision in Matal v. Tam about trademark disparagement. “I’ve modernized things to keep up with what’s actually happening,” she said.

What Messenger has not done is pad this book with unnecessary information. For example, she explained, the Supreme Court’s recent Air Wisconsin v. Hoeper libel decision “doesn’t add anything substantive to the day-to-day reality of what comes up for journalists,” and so it did not make the cut for the book. She “really tried” to keep the book from being “merely an academic exercise.” And, with several hundred fewer pages than other media law textbooks, students will no doubt notice.

Fittingly, the book ends with “What Practical Issues Are Related to Media Law?” This last chapter includes non-legal consequences and considerations, assessing risk, media liability insurance, and journalism ethics – topics that are not regularly included in classic media law textbooks. They are a welcome and eminently useful addition. “The fact that the First Amendment may protect a speaker’s right to say something doesn’t mean that there won’t be any consequences arising from such speech,” Messenger writes. This may just be the most important lesson of this enlightening book, one that every single journalism and communications student should be reminded of – over and over again.

In our increasingly complex world, especially for mass communicators, a basic understanding of media law is arguably more critical than ever. “Media Law: A Practical Guide (Revised Edition)” will be released this July, with enough time to be adopted for fall 2019 classes. The paperback and e-book will be priced at $69.95.


Carolyn Levin

Carolyn Schurr Levin is a media lawyer who has taught media law courses at Long Island University, Stony Brook University, Baruch College, and Pace University. Before teaching full time, she was the Vice President and General Counsel of Newsday and the Vice President and General Counsel of Ziff Davis Media.