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Rules Governing the Media: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Freedom of the Press
  • 1:04 Regulating the Media
  • 3:18 FCC & Decency
  • 4:48 FCC & Politics
  • 6:42 Cable & Internet
  • 8:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, but the government still regulates the media in many ways. This lesson examines the laws, rules and regulations that govern various media outlets.

Freedom of the Press

'Skydiver Lands on Beer Vendor at Women's Cole Slaw Wrestling Event'

'Five-Headed Coach to Lead Washington School'

These are real headlines! You might be wondering if the media can print or broadcast whatever they like. That's not too far from the truth. The U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press. The press doesn't have absolute freedom, but there are only a handful of laws and regulations that limit the media.

There are even laws in place to guarantee openness of information and media freedom, such as the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. The FOIA is a federal law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government. The media makes many FOIA requests to gather information for news reports and articles.

Regulating the Media

Now, let's take a look at some ways the media is limited. It's helpful to note that the print media are largely unregulated. This means that newspapers, newsletters, flyers and magazines can print almost anything they'd like.

The main restriction on the print media comes in the form of defamation. Defamation occurs when someone prints or broadcasts information that is untrue and harmful to someone else. Claims of defamation are usually civil cases governed largely by state law. However, there are some countries and states in the U.S. with criminal defamation laws.

Defamation includes both libel and slander. Libel is defamation of character in print, audio, or video publications. Slander is defamation of character through unrecorded gestures or oral remarks. When someone is defamed through libel or slander, that person can sue the media outlet directly for damages.

Broadcast media is more highly regulated than print media. Broadcasters and networks can still be sued for defamation. However, the broadcast media is also subject to broader, federal regulations. The regulations stem from the historical development of broadcasting.

When radio stations were first used, the stations operated on the same frequencies. This meant they often blocked each other's signals. The Federal Radio Act of 1927 set up licensing procedures to allocate different frequencies to different radio stations because the airwaves were deemed public property. In 1934, Congress enacted the Federal Communications Act. This Act established the Federal Communications Commission, which continues to manage the broadcast media, and our airwaves, still today.

The FCC and Decency

The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, is a federal government agency responsible for regulating the public airwaves. The FCC issues licenses and is in charge of controlling everything that uses the airwaves. The FCC serves several roles. For one, the FCC polices the content of the airwaves. The FCC has the authority to fine broadcasters, or even revoke broadcasting licenses, for violating the FCC's Public Decency Standards. It's a violation of federal law:

  • To broadcast obscene programming at any time
  • To broadcast indecent programming during certain hours
  • To broadcast profane language during certain hours

The definition of what is obscene, indecent or profane is left to the interpretation of the FCC and the federal courts. Though these provisions may seem vague, they're often used. For example, the FCC fined radio shock-jock Howard Stern so many times that he's been dubbed the 'King of all Fines.' A nearly $500,000 fine in 2004 prompted carrier Clear Channel to drop his show from six different stations.

The FCC and Politics

Besides decency standards, the FCC also regulates broadcasts that involve political campaigns. The FCC uses its Equal Time Rule to ensure that broadcasters provide an opportunity for equal broadcast time to all official candidates running for a particular office. This is why television stations often invite candidates on at the same time to partake in round table talks or debates.

The FCC uses the Right of Rebuttal to ensure that broadcasters provide candidates with an opportunity to respond to criticisms made against them. In other words, a station can't air an attack against one candidate without giving that candidate a chance to respond. You've seen this basic principle at work in the State of the Union address. When the president is a Democrat, a representative of the Republican Party makes a rebuttal speech known as the Republican Response. The response airs directly after the State of the Union speech. When the president is a Republican, there is a Democratic Response aired.

Though rarely used, and appealed in 1987, the FCC also had the Fairness Doctrine. This rule stated that a broadcaster who aired a controversial program had to provide time to also air opposing views. For example, if a station aired a documentary on global warming, it would also have to allow time to air programming that disputes global warming. As media outlets grew, and information became more available, the need for the Fairness Doctrine shriveled. It was repealed during the Reagan administration as part of a larger effort toward deregulating several areas of government.

Cable and Internet

Now, let's take a look at other forms of media. We know the FCC regulates our airwaves as a service to the public because the people own the airwaves. So, where does that leave other forms of media, such as cable, Internet and digital? These aren't broadcast over airwaves, so the FCC doesn't specifically regulate these areas. In fact, these media forms remain largely unregulated. That's why cable networks can air certain shows with too much violence or other adult content to meet the FCC decency standards, such as The Sopranos or Orange is the New Black.

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