Political Perspectives is produced by the students and faculty of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Canada's oldest journalism school.

DEC 2009

Responsible communication

Posted by cwaddell under Media Commentary

Christopher Waddell

Today’s Supreme Court decision is a welcome updating of laws regarding libel that should ensure more stories are pursued and published or broadcast as the media no longer will have to prove independently the accuracy of everything contained in those stories. Instead the Court has established the concept of responsible communication under which the media can obtain protection  from libel “if it can establish that it acted responsibly in attempting to verify the information in a matter of public interest.”

The media has never been keen on shining any light onto how it does its work, yet that’s what this decision seems likely to produce.

As Dean Jobb notes in today’s Globe and Mail, “In essence, the law is holding journalists to the standard expected of doctors, lawyers and other professionals. ” With those standards also come responsibilities.

While the decision will benefit the media and its readers listeners and viewers, it leaves open a lot of  questions that will likely be determined by lower court rulings and perhaps in future by the Supreme Court itself.

How many independent sources must a news organization have for a story to qualify under the protection of responsible communication? How much time should a news organization give someone to respond to a reporter’s questions about a story – an hour? Four hours? A day? Two days? How many calls must a reporter make before he or she can conclude there will be no call-backs? How should news organizations use anonymous and non-identified sources and quotes? What is and isn’t responsible here?

News organizations that have codes of conduct will have to ensure they are enforced and prove that point before the courts. Those that don’t may find judges dictating the rules of journalism for them and that could end up forcing changes on those codes of conduct too.

While the court decision also appears to apply to bloggers, will they be held to a different standard than news organizations and if not, why?

For a public that has grown increasingly dissatisfied with the standards and accuracy of reporting in mainstream media this could all be very good news. Light will shine where it has only rarely shone before.For news organizations though, it seems destined to compromise and even undercut the independent decision-making they have always protected in deciding what and when a story is a story.

Christopher Waddell is acting director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He is a former reporter, Ottawa bureau chief, national editor and associate editor of the Globe and Mail and a former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and executive producer-news specials for CBC TV News.