Avoiding libel suits: a must-read for budding journalists
By TMH Contributor Jennifer Alvarez
With our fast-moving and instantaneous culture, as well as the global platform the internet offers, the risk of publishing libelous material has become a source of serious concern for many.
As a result, the saying ‘words to live by’ has taken on a more literal meaning for journalists and reporters who work tirelessly to bring news to the public.
A recent ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada in April 2012, as well as those made in 2009, established the new defence of responsible journalism. It protects public interest articles and comments made based on accurate facts and balanced reporting.
Igor Ellyn, a Toronto-based civil litigation attorney, said this decision as well as a recent defamation case involving Lord Conrad Black, former media mogul, emphasizes the importance of journalistic responsibility.
“You have to research thoroughly to make sure that you get as many of the facts right as possible and that you don’t rely on incomplete research. Double-check your sources,” said Ellyn. “Second, anything not proven in court has to be identified by using words like ‘alleged’ or specifying that the allegations have not been proven [in court].”
But words like ‘alleged’ won’t be enough if the article is one-sided and states unproven comments as if they were facts.
Lord Black is suing his former associates at Hollinger Inc. for comments he considered defamatory made in a U.S. publication that was republished online by various Canadian media outlets.
Ellyn said that the likelihood of being sued for defamation is much lower if reporters write balanced news and public interest articles based on thoroughly researched facts, and without bad intent or malice.
If this is adhered to, in the event that a suit is launched, the defence of responsible journalism is more likely to save the publication from being ruled against.
“If the story is more sensational than accurate, then you’re probably best to leave it in the editorial room,” added Ellyn.
Dona Boulos, a Humber College journalism student, said she constantly double checks all of her notes and research to make sure her information is accurate.
“It’s so important to get things right…sometimes the pressure of that gets overwhelming,” said Boulos. “But that’s the beauty of journalism.”
Boulos also said the responsibility of a journalist is not only to report accurate news, but to also maintain the standards and ethics of this profession to the highest degree.
“As young journalists, we will be feeding future generations their news. We have this huge responsibility to be honest with people and to be absolutely accurate in every word we write or say,” she added.
For journalists and reporters, being accurate, thorough in one’s research and passionate is the best defence against a libel claim.
Ellyn stated: “Somebody once said that the difference between excellence and mediocrity is that, with excellence, you will apply the same effort to the last five percent of your project as you did for the first 95%.”
As long the research is thorough, accurate and without malice, one can rest assured that the standards of being a great journalist are being met.
And this, my colleauges, is our greatest defence.