Throwing citizen journos to the lions

William Perrin talking about hyper local – a media law-free zone?

So citizen journalists don’t need to know libel law? You might as well throw the hapless citizen into the bear pit with the defamation lawyers right now, in that case – I give it five minutes.

The pronouncement that citizen journalists can do without learning media law was made at the recent News Innovation conference in London on Friday by William Perrin, of hyperlocal news project Talk About Local.

According to Perrin, “It’s no longer necessary to have a degree or understanding of how printing presses work or of libel or defamation, the finer points of deadlines to publish news to the world, and we should equip and empower as many people as possible to do that for themselves.”

“Equip and empower” – well, yes, in the same way that you would give a toddler the keys to a Ferrari. It seems to me that by saying that media law is an optional extra, it damages citizen journos more than liberates them. It essentially encourages them to report on local news without knowing how to avoid landing themselves up to their ears in law suits. By not knowing your qualified privilege from your criminal libel, citizen journos lay themselves open to reporting accusations, even if they’re true, without knowing how to defend them.

Now of course this hasn’t stopped bloggers and anyone else with access to a computer and a will to criticise. Anyone can make accusatory statements if they want to, freedom of expression and all that. But saying citizen journos don’t need to know the laws that could result in them being in court for defamation appears to legitimise reckless journalism . It appears to give them free rein to defame, libel, slag off at will, as though they are somehow endowed with special powers that make libel actions simply bounce off them.

Knowing the basic principles of good journalism is always crucial, citizen journo or not. You don’t need to do a degree, but you do need to know enough before wading into the potentially litigious world of reporting.

Jeff Jarvis mentioned on his blog how in the Phillipines, the ABS-CBN TV network has been training citizens in the basic elements of journalism, including ethics. I wonder whether Talk About Local will also offer some kind of training by including documents on its website on law and ethics? Maybe something to think about, if only to cover their own backs.

As a cautionary tale, look at the fate of blogger Shellee Hale, who was sued after she posted comments on a message board alleging fraud and misuse of technology against a software company. She was denied the right to protect her sources, as the judge deemed she was not a journalist, as she failed to back up her claims that she had ever worked for a newspaper, magazine or media entity. Citizen journos are even more vulnerable to lawsuits than professional reporters, as they not only lack basic journalism skills but also the protections and privileges that come from being a journalist.

The judge also commented on her failure to get the other side of the story, saying this “certainly does not suggest the kind of journalistic objectivity and credibility that courts have found to qualify for the protections of the Shield Law.” Being a journalist entails, or at least should entail, striving for balanced and unbiased reporting, which clearly Hale failed to do. This case throws up several questions, including what is a journalist – a slightly different tangent, admittedly – but fundamentally it highlights the perils of citizens going around thinking they’re a journalist, without the first idea about how to act like one.

© Melanie Hall 2017