Legal Issues Journalism Faces

5 min readDec 14, 2020

In the society that we live in, with news as instant as a ticking clock, journalists have to be mindful not to create defamatory, libel or slanderous work. When reading news stories etc, you don’t consciously think about the legal challenges that journalists face. In this article, I will explain in simple form what legal challenges are faced!

A libel statement is defined is in a permanent statement form, including a web page, broadcast, or print, that lowers a person's or companies reputation in the eyes of society. In order for the statement to be viable as a libel statement, the claimant has to show that the material that was published, they were identified, could be defamatory, and that it would have caused serious harm to the claimant's reputation. This includes anything said by image, words, social media, and digital video.

Slander on the other hand, although a defamatory statement that causes harm to an individual's reputation, they are made in spoken form and therefore a lot harder to prove in court whereas a libel statement has some form of permanent proof, so the evidence is clearer when in court.

Journalists need to be conscious of the five areas of law that are vital when writing articles, if journalists do not abide by these areas of law when conducting articles, there are many criminal sanctions for journalists including embarrassment through secondary media law ethics regulation. As discussed on the Ethical journalism Network there are five principles of ethical journalism.

  1. Truth and Accuracy: ‘Journalists cannot always guarantee ‘truth,’ but when collecting facts, the accuracy of them is one of the main components of journalism. Secondly, as journalists, the facts that are being published should always be double checked.
  2. Independence: As Journalists, what we post must be independent and unique to us. Stated in ‘The Five Principles of Ethical Journalism,’‘we should not act, formally or informally, on behalf of special interest whether political, corporate or cultural.’
  3. Fairness and Impartiality: When writing stories or even telling in real life, we know that there are always two sides to every story. When writing a piece, there is no way to be completely objective but the stories ‘should be balanced and add context.’
  4. Humanity: When publishing stories we should be assessing what we are writing to make sure what we re publishing does not cause any harm to anyone perceiving. We need to be aware of what we write or what images we post could have a negative effect on someone and therefore rethink posting.
  5. Accountability: ‘A sure sign of professionalism and responsible journalism is the ability to hold ourselves accountable.’ When writing, we have to take responsibility for the mistakes we make and make sure feedback given is taken constructively.
Gavel on Law Books

Contempt of Court

A criminal case only becomes applicable to be able to report restrictions when a case becomes ‘active’. The four ways in which a case can become active as BBC Academy state, is when:

A civil case on the other hand becomes active when a court date is set and when a case is concluded, stated in the Media Law and Ethics: Key Pointsby David Mascord. Also stated in BBC Academy article discussing the contempt of court, ‘Once proceedings are ‘active’, anything which creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in these proceedings will be seriously prejudiced or impeded will be a contempt of court.’

For an example of a libel case that the individual has lost due to a sufficient amount of evidence from photographs to audio recordings, was in May 2016, Amber Heard, Johnny Depp’s wife had said that Depp had ‘violently’ attacked her on at least 14 occasions and was granted a restraining order and soon after they were divorced. Now in 2020, Johnny Depp had created a libel action against The Sun newspaper, as he believed that the allegations of the physical abuse were exaggerated in the newspaper. BBC news state that ‘Mr Depp says that The Sun libelled him because it published an article that was defamatory. The article said he was a “wife-beater” amid allegations about his relationship with his former wife, Amber Heard.’

Johnny Depp believed that the information that was published in The Sun wasn’t factual and therefore becoming a libel case, due to the permanent damage of his reputation from the accusations. Depp stated, shown in the BBC article, ‘that has caused enormous damage to his reputation- which ultimately will cause him losses in his career and life’, suggesting the libel element of the trial. In another article by the BBC news, titled ‘Johnny Depp: Claims in the Sun he beat ex wife ‘complete lies, court told’ it was stated by Sasha Wass QC, barrister for NGN, suggested that Mr. Depp, “regularly engaged in destructive and violent behavior,” providing more evidence for Depp’s violent behavior toward his ex-wife and after all evidence was gathered the judge described Depp as a “wife beater” and his case was denied.

Defamation Defence

Johnny Depp’s case is an example of the Defence of Truth as the defamatory statement was proven substantially true. The Defamation act 2013 states ‘it is a defence to an action for defamation for the defendant to show that the imputation conveyed by the statement complained of is substantially true’. Secondly, the next defamation defence is Honest Opinion, which is, ‘To succeed the defendant must show that the defamatory statement is a statement of opinion and not a statement of fact.’ The statement that is published must be an opinion or on the basis of one. Finally, Public Interest is where statements are published as they believe that the public deserves the right to know.

Here are some ways in which journalists can avoid being sued and facing legal accusations. Checking their work before publishing, known as fast-checking, although this may be the simplest thought, journalists should morally check their work before publishing to avoid causing substantial harm to an individual or business. Furthermore, be careful how you say what you are saying, it is not always the content of what is said but how it is said. Make sure only facts are used and checked for viability before publishing, do not make up a fact. Confidentiality of a source's information is extremely important, keep the information private and as Coleen Murphy states ‘if you obtain private information that the source does not want shared, don’t publish it.’ Coleen Murphy also explains that getting someone's permission to post information you have collected is extremely important. Similar to fast-checking of facts, make sure you are checking twice for the person's consent, ‘you will avoid severe problems.’

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A 20 year old English Degree Student. Blogger, fiction lover, music enthusiast and active shopper!