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.

Q & A with Margot Daley- Dir. Original Programming - W network, Own Canada and CMT, Corus Entertainment

By TMH Contributor Justin Bailey


With The Media Huddle’s May event, ‘The Media Job Hunt’, almost here, one of the panellists Margot Daley took some time out to speak to us. Interviewed by Justin Bailey, she shared some words of advice.

What is your position at Corus entertainment and what responsibilities come along with this role?


As acting director of Original Productions, I’m responsible for collaborating with our team of production executives as we develop unscripted shows right from the pitch phase through production across our women’s networks. These include W Network, OWN Network (Canada) and CMT Network (Canada). The shows we produce right now are mostly within the genre of reality, but run the gamut from hidden camera game shows to  large scale social experiments series like Million Dollar Neighbourhood, which we launched earlier this year on OWN, to competition reality series  like  Come Dine with Me Canada.


What were some of the motivating factors that made you want to pursue this career?


I actually started out working in news and current affairs at CTV and Canada AM in 2004 and thought at the time that I would like to become a foreign correspondent.  For eight years I worked in this world as a news producer and field producer and learned so much.  But the most important thing I learned, however, was that I didn’t have that true news junkie passion that you need to sustain a long, fulfilling career in news.  Fortunately, I discovered that that even if I didn’t want to chase the gut wrenching stories of the day, I still liked telling compelling stories. The growing world of independent television was a place where I could do just that while using the valuable skills I had gained working in news. I was good at interviewing people and I knew how to chase and dig up a good story idea.


Briefly, what was one of your first memorable experiences in the industry? (Good or bad, something that you couldn’t forget even if you wanted to)


 I had the opportunity to produce an in-depth TV interview with Oprah Winfrey for CTV after her film Beloved came out.  I got to accompany the host for an exclusive 1-hour sit down interview with the talk show diva as she gave press interviews in the United States.  She was as warm and giving as you would expect, and she was thrilled to talk about her film, telling us it was the best thing she had ever done. When the interview finished, she graciously took a picture with me that I have to this day. Fifteen years later, I’m now working on OWN Network (Canada), helping program original series on the channel that bears her name!



Reality TV has taken over many television networks within the past decade. Why do you think they are so successful even when people don’t believe they mimic reality? 


Most reality shows rise and fall on characters!  They are a huge part of the picture whether we love them or love to hate them. We like to be entertained by larger-than-life folks that fill up a room, make us laugh or cry, or frustrate us to death. Good reality shows often feature strong compelling characters with story and stakes, meaning they have something big on the line and that we’re interested in them enough to see if they succeed or fail week to week.




If you had the chance to explore any other profession, what would it be and why? 


I’ve always thought that someday I would get the opportunity to teach. I still think it is possible, even if not formally.  


As a program director I’m sure you come across a lot of different television shows. What is your favorite TV show? 


That’s a tough question, I don’t have just one. I’m a long time (20 year-long) fan of the British soap Coronation Street, which has the best characters.  I’ve watched them grow up, and even if I don’t relate to some of them, I care about them and what happens to them next.  In fact I sometimes forget they’re actors!  On the other end of the spectrum, I love compelling, real characters you often meet in large scale social experiments like the series Million Dollar Neighbourhood, which we  produced on OWN, where real families with financial struggles just sucked you in talking about their lives. I’d round out my favourites list with Mad Men, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and for humour, I’d throw in Come Dine with Me Canada and The Office.


Do you have any words of advice that you would like to share to upcoming media professionals?


 Watch television! Lots of television. Watch Spike, History, Discovery, A & E and of course W. Get a feel for the way all of these networks are now telling their stories. Reality is king right now, but there are many different types of reality. If you want to pitch or work for any network, you have to understand the type of programming they do and the approach they take to storytelling. Lastly, don’t pitch what we already have on the air. We’re all looking for the next big hit or characters that no one else has likely heard of.    Case in point: My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Who knew?


Pitch Perfect

By TMH Contributor Angela Walcott

Sandra Porteous, Senior Manager of Learning at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, grew up listening to her father pitch ideas, as a freelance writer, on a daily basis. As part of Innoversity Creative Summit, which was founded by Hamlin Grange and Cynthia Reyes in 2002, Porteous’s informative workshop ‘The Art of the Pitch’ outlined the basics of a good pitch.  

The 5 P’s of a Successful Pitch:

1)      Prep – Ensure that your story is front loaded, i.e. well-researched. The more time you spend on crafting a detailed pitch, the better your chances of increasing the selling potential of the story. Do you have all that you need to know? Which experts did you check with? During preparation, you will undoubtedly discover if you are pitching the right idea to the right audience.

2)      Pretend – When you are writing a pitch for a potential market, look at the topic with fresh eyes. Imagine that you are a tourist in a new city. If you know how a service operates and is delivered, act as though it is something entirely new and do some digging. Should the TTC really be operating this way?

3)      Practice – If you are pitching an idea in the newsroom or at an editorial meeting, practice the pitch ahead of time with people you know. A mild debate may ensue but in the process you will get a strong sense of different issues that may arise from all sides.

4)      Polish – With the right feedback and enough practice, you can see where adjustments need to made and fine-tune the story idea until it is just right.

5)      Passion - Another important tip from Sandra Porteous is to like the topic you are pitching:

“You can’t fake passion. Try to select a topic you are interested in or else don’t write about it,” said Porteous.

How much emotion and passion you deliver during the pitch will add to the selling power of your story during editorial meetings.

Apart from the 5 P’s, keeping an idea journal is another way to generate stories. There are a multitude of sources for generating ideas including social media. Twitter is a perfect example – a virtual playground of ideas that evolve from off-the-cuff remarks to news feeds and links to other articles.

But above all, Porteous recommends that we stay curious as journalists.

“The minute we stop asking questions and stop being curious, we’re dead.”

A-Ha: How Social Media Influenced Oprah’s Life-class Tour

By TMH Contributor Angela Walcott

The media event of the year has come and gone, and Toronto is left in the settling dust that was Oprah Winfrey’s Life-class Tour – in which the use of social media took the experience to a whole new level.

While a few were fortunate enough to have secured tickets to the event, others (ahem, ahem) were not. But

never fear; social media saved the day. Those of us who couldn’t attend lived vicariously through bloggers and social media aficionados who did. If someone wasn’t tweeting, they were Facebooking; and if they weren’t Facebooking, they were YouTubing. With modern technology at our fingertips, smart phones and tablets were on the go providing real-time coverage.

Fellow citizen reporters emerged in various forms – from those barely old enough to drive to eager stay-at-home moms. It is the authenticity of the moment that viewers expect in this new age form of journalism. The guffaws, the quirkiness, the real moments captured by everyday people like you and I, are what garner the highest readership.

Blogger Trina Stewart, of Life’s A Blog, took cyberspace readers behind the scenes of her attendance at the Oprah extravaganza. She related the ups and downs of the rollercoaster ride event honestly. Her journey was full of the unexpected – annoying Wi-Fi glitches, line ups that lasted for hours. But the highlights – listening to the words of T.D. Jakes and Deepak Chopra, being ushered to the third row and coming face to face with guest speaker Iyanla Vanzant – were amazing. Social media brings you into the moment by sharing details that would never make it to the six o’clock news.

According to Becky Gaylord’s post 12 Most Crucial Rules For Content Sharing, the key to sharing content includes staying relevant, staying interesting, mixing different formats and being creative above all things.

Hodari Clarke, aka H2O, did just that with an innovative approach to chronicling the Life-class Tour. Using a variety of social media tools, he demonstrated his dream of meeting Oprah one day, and possibly working for her, too. Clarke’s presentation also included a spoken word mixtape of inspirational messages.

In addition, he created a YouTube channel promising to give a free ticket to the event to the viewer with the best video explaining their life’s dream.
Using the tools that Oprah has so often employed in her life classes and delivered to the masses, Clarke put into practice what is so often preached.

Through the various social media platforms, not physically being there was no hindrance to experiencing the Life-class. Even Oprah Winfrey herself turned to Twitter when she could not access OWN from her hotel room during the tour. That tells you something: the steadily-increasing power of social media is here to stay.

Now that’s an A-HA moment.