Supreme Court validates responsibility argument

The Supreme Court of Canada's judgment means additional freedom — and responsibility — for journalists. Credit: SCC

I was sitting in a restaurant Tuesday morning having breakfast with my spouse, our daughter and her friend when I happened to check the Twitter feed on my mobile phone. “Yes!” I exclaimed, feeling suddenly self-conscious about my outburst as other patrons were trying to caffeinate their way to alertness.

“That sounds as if you might actually be getting excited about something,” my wife said. (I’m not generally known for pouring a lot of emotion into everyday conversation.)

I’d read a tweet about the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in a case where “responsible journalism” had been the key argument in a libel case — a ruling that provides for additional protection for journalists and news organizations when careful, balanced and methodical work on a story is in the public interest, even if it happens to tarnish the reputation of an individual.

In the annals of Canadian journalism, the lack of this type of precedent has killed hundreds of stories, no matter their importance to the public interest and national discourse, for fear of libel and slander litigation.

Dean Jobb, associate professor of journalism at King’s College in Halifax, has provided a cogent and accessible analysis of the ruling for Globe and Mail justice reporter Kirk Makin also wrote a fine piece on the meaning of the ruling.

The challenge for news media now, of course, will be to live up to the demands implicit in the judgment. The danger lies in citation of the Supreme Court decision by journalists without the requisite hard work and care in reporting. As is so often the case in other spheres, with increased freedom comes increased responsibility — and that will be the message journalism instructors will need to relay to their students.

I expect the ruling will, in a roundabout way, also increase the impetus toward the professionalization of investigative journalism, if not in a formal sense, then in its practice. And like the proverbial tide that lifts all boats, it reminds every thinking journalist of the imperative of nailing down every detail before publication.

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