It has always been risky for journalists to offend the powerful, rich and litigious. But until the digital age, American newspapers generally held their own: They rigorously checked facts and employed legal muscle to beat back bullies.
Today they are unprepared to fight, argues a 2016 paper by lawyer and Fortune staff writer Jeff John Roberts. As newspaper budgets have shrunk and some media outlets have moved to clickbait-based business models, in many cases the tenured editors who served as wise counselors and fact-checkers have been sacked. Mistakes are thus more likely.
“More journalists are publishing at a speed and in a fashion that is likely to invite legal trouble. These include reporters who perform ‘churnalism’ in the form of five or more superficial stories a day, or ‘hot takes’ that involve a writer with scant knowledge of a topic publishing a hasty piece of opinion or analysis,” explains Roberts in the paper, “Scribes Without Safety Nets: Teaching Law to Journalists in the Digital Era.”
Journalists, moreover, are unprepared for what Roberts calls “digital dangers.” They are not receiving training for a digital-first world at American journalism schools, Roberts contends in the paper, which he wrote as a Knight-Bagehot fellow at Columbia University: “The result is that it is easier today for news subjects to browbeat reporters with legal threats. A lack of legal resources can also produce a chilling effect in which news outlets steer away from the sort of reporting that could trigger a lawsuit in the first place.”
Indeed, these days there is no guarantee your publication will defend you against a deep-pocketed pugilist. Some freelancer contracts even include indemnity clauses, which place all liability on the writer.
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