The Day The Media Got It Wrong [and the lesson it must learn from it]

The first thing I learned in J School was that being first to break a story was what every journalist strived for.  The second thing was that being first and wrong was just being wrong.  This was a challenge back in the 1990s when the internet was in its infancy; in a world of 24-hour rolling news and real-time internet it must be an almost impossible job.  Nevertheless, these qualities must be upheld otherwise it’s not journalism – it’s just rumour spreading.

Back in the 90s my News Editors wouldn’t have let me anywhere near a studio, let alone a live microphone, unless I could prove the accuracy of the information from two independent, and reliable, sources.  One had to be a news agency and, in many cases, the other had to be the police or other authority.  She’d rather be second than be wrong.  Getting it wrong not only brings in to question the future credibility of the news outlet, but is also fraught with legal difficulties.

There have been examples of news networks getting things wrong before: the wrong winners have been declared in US Presidential elections based on incorrect exit poll data, death tolls are often printed wrong and minor details of evolving stories are mis-reported  but, if as appears to be the case today, the perpetrator of a crime in Newtown, CT. is wrongly identified then it’s time the industry took a long hard look at itself and remembers the second rule of journalism.  If you’re first but wrong, you’re just wrong.

Defamation [and the definition of publication]

I’m seeing a worrying trend online lately.  It’s especially worrying when so much of what we do these days is based on reputation – and the primary source of information for both individuals is what we read online.

I’m talking about defamation of character.  From what I’ve seen recently I’m worried the Internet is becoming a place where people think they have the right to say what they want about both people and businesses, without having to provide any proof… and have no awareness of their responsibilities to ensure that they do not libel [or slander] individuals or businesses.  It’s perhaps not surprising given that many of the resources online explaining what defamation of character is are unclear, but while individuals could perhaps be forgiven – although ignorance isn’t a defence against a libel – what is more worrying is that an increasing number of sites that claim to monitor forums and blogs for inappropriate or defamatory content seem to have no awareness of the laws either.

I was going to post a link to the Wikipedia entry on Defamation but, having read it, it’s more likely to confuse than inform.  So, defamation is, in essence, the publication of a statement that is false and has a negative impact on somebody’s reputation or standing. The legal definition is more complex, so I’m paraphrasing.  I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that the Internet is censored – I’m all for an open web where people have freedom of speech – but that shouldn’t be at the expense of adhering to basic laws.

There are essentially three defences open to somebody that makes a defamatory statement:

  1. It’s the truth
  2. It is in the public interest that people are made aware of something – even if the statement is proven to be factually untrue.

Another defence that can be used in some instances is that it’s fair comment. Could a reasonable person come to the same conclusion based on the facts presented?

Everybody is entitled to their opinion – if you don’t like something you’re perfectly entitled to voice it.  What you can’t do, as far as my interpretation of the law is concerned, is to accuse somebody of committing a criminal offence or something that damages their reputation, when there is no evidence to support it. Despite evidence to the contrary, I still believe that you should be innocent until proved guilty – and by proof, I mean in a court of law, not because it’s a conclusion that somebody has come to because they’re annoyed with poor service, or the quality of a product.

Prejudice and Malice [there are some jurisdictions, like the UK Houses of Parliament that are not bound by defamation laws]

This is where many online forums just don’t get it in my opinion.

Fair comment [the assertion that a reasonable person could form that opinion] seems to be the default response by many forums, blogs and online media outlets.  While many sites include a term in their usage policies that makes it clear that defamatory statements constitute a breach of their policies and state that users’ opinions are not necessarily those of the publisher. [It’s worth pointing out that for defamation to have taken place it has to be ‘published’. The legal definition of publishing is that two people have seen it. One can be the person accused]. They then try to hide behind this, hoping that the defamed won’t know that legally if you publish a libel you’re as guilty as the person making the original statement.  Ignorance or the fact that somebody else said it first is not a legal defence. This strategy is, in my opinion, a dangerous one!

The problem with the ‘fair comment’ defence is that the evidence provided to support it is often flawed: in many cases it’s not reasonably researched, not based on anything concrete, and is often fuelled by information provided by other posters to  a site or forum [which is often inaccurate, badly [or un-]researched information or just an individual’s opinion].  Working on that basis a reasonable person could be persuaded to believe almost anything.

I’m all for freedom of speech and fair comment… but what I disagree with is flagrant abuse of the defamation laws online, couched as fair comment.  It’s time this matter was addressed, or it’ll be the Internet’s reputation that will be permanently ruined.

Update, Nov 17 2012: The events of the last few days have made me think I should update this post.  I wrote a post in which I suggested that somebody who claims to be an expert in “social, viral and authentic marketing” may be a false expert and an editor – who admits that they aren’t a lawyer – feels the statement could be defamatory.  Having read my post on defamation again it’s worth pointing out that in libel cases the burden of proof is on the complainant [the libelled] to prove that the claims made are false.  In order to do that, I’d argue, there has to be a clear and commonly accepted set of terms of reference.

In the comment on my post the Editor uses a libel case in which there is an accusation against an individual of accepting ‘backhanders’ – a criminal offence.  She claims that she believes [although, remember she’s not an expert] that my claims are more defamatory than  those of a criminal offence.  I beg to differ…