The advent of the Internet and the rise of the digital age changed journalism forever. The privileges and responsibilities of the Fourth Estate have essentially been crowdsourced through blogging and social media platforms. These days, any writer with something to say can find an audience, however niche. This development is great for the free marketplace of ideas, but it doesn’t come without complications.
The vast majority of bloggers and web reporters, however talented, don’t have the benefit of a formal journalistic education. There’s a reason journalism students are expected to take classes on ethics. When a blogger editorializes in a news piece or propagates a speculative scoop without the proper fact checking, there’s the potential for disaster. Reporting is only as valuable as it is accurate. Veracity is the foremost journalistic virtue. When a blogger posts a story without reliable information or – worst case scenario – fabricates a damaging fact entirely, the whole information cycle is disrupted.
For the most part, these sins of invention or omission are immoral but not illegal. When misinformation becomes defamatory, however, the blogger reporting the misinformation exposes him or herself to actual liability. Bloggers who want to avoid damaging lawsuits need to understand the nature of defamation crimes and the boundaries of their First Amendment rights. Only then can they report stories with confidence and avoid prosecution.
Defamation is a tricky cause of action. Most bloggers think that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution grants them free reign to write whatever they want. This is a free country, after all. That interpretation, however idyllic, is far removed from the legal reality. Every freedom in American jurisprudence has boundaries – even those freedoms codified in the Bill of Rights. As a general rule, a journalist can exercise his or her First Amendment freedoms until they begin to encroach on the freedoms enjoyed by others. Libel and slander occur when someone writes or says something untrue that causes actual financial damage to another party.
Libel means written defamation. Slander means spoken defamation. Both are legitimate grounds for a lawsuit. But what about all those people who have been damaged by news stories in the past? Journalism has ruined careers and lives many times over, but not all those damaging stories resulted in a defamation lawsuit. How do you – the blogger – report a negative story without getting sued?
Your first line of defense is the truth. The American people have a right to hear the facts. That maxim is embodied in our country’s defamation laws. This is where meticulous fact checking comes in. Truth will always be a complete defense to libel. If you can demonstrate that a fact you printed is true, then no matter how damaging that fact is you can repeat it to your heart’s content.
Your second line of defense against an Internet defamation claim is good faith. Public figures have an elevated threshold for defamation. A public figure who wants to sue a journalist for libel needs to show more than just lack of truth and economic damages; a public figure must also show malice. Never print any negative article maliciously. If you always write in good faith, then even if you’re wrong you can escape liability.