By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw
Much has been written about the ethics of so-called ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative’ facts in a ‘post-truth’ era, but few have explored the legal implications of these and the flow-on to education in media law.
This article suggests there are clear legal risks for journalists adopting the hallmark practices of ‘fake news’ – particularly in linking identifiable individuals to reputationally damaging falsities (defamation) and in making misleading or deceptive claims in the course of business (consumer law).
Whether or not such an ethically dubious practice is actionable will depend on a host of factors including the strength of publishing defences, the availability of legal advice, and the jurisdictional reach of any legal suit.
This article suggests a problem-based approach – including recent examples and classical media law principles – might encourage a ‘mindful’ (reflective) practice when assessing media law risks in the news room.
When a graduate makes the news for a serious legal error – as one Yahoo!7 journalist did in Australia in 2016 (DPP v Johnson & Yahoo!7  VSC 699 (28 November 2016) ) – journalism educators are deceiving themselves if they think such a fate might not await their own graduates.
If we accept there is no guarantee our students will retain the key knowledge they need in an important area like media law, we need to at least ensure they are equipped with the requisite skills to pause and reflect in the midst of their news reporting and production to assess their capacity for reporting a particular story or addressing a legal or ethical dilemma.
We have developed and refined one approach to achieving this over recent years which we have called ‘mindful journalism’. I’ve written a short account of the basic principles of mindful journalism in the journal Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, and the editors have been kind enough to make that article available for free viewing as a feature item on their website here. Our book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (Shelton Gunaratne, Mark Pearson and Sugath Senarath eds; Routledge, NY, 2015) explored the possibilities of applying mindfulness techniques to journalism practice.
The Asia Pacific Media Educator article explains that in applying the mindful journalism approach to media law, students are taught to work through an eight-point checklist to self-assess their capacity for dealing with an ethical or legal dilemma. When applied to the proposed construction and/or publication of ‘fake news’, the eight points of questioning and reflection might appear as follows:
Understanding – What is my understanding of the media laws relevant to this situation? What are the legal implications of publishing something false – even the false words or constructions of others? What are the risks of publishing something true, which might still be in breach of a law (for example, in breach of a suppression order or in breach of sub judice contempt rules)?
Intent – Why do I even want to report this story? What public interest does it serve? What am I intending to achieve by my involvement in its production?
Livelihood – Am I in the right occupation here? Where does the task I am approaching (‘fake news’) sit within my career definition?
Speech – What is the factual basis to the words I am selecting and how are they best selected and crafted to demonstrate truth, accuracy and good faith? Whose voices are in my story and is there a sufficient range of voices and perspective to earn the relevant defences? What needs to be said that is not being said in this story, contributing to falsities, misunderstandings, or imputations about others?
Actions – What aspects of my behavior in this reporting and publishing sit within the bounds of the law and the defences to which I aspire? How do I manage the fact-checking of the words others are saying here and how do I explain any falsities to my audience? Can the publication of my story be delayed until I can substantiate any claims with further evidence?
Effort – To what extent am I trying to follow both the letter and spirit of the law in the pursuit of this story? How hard have I worked to gather evidence to prove the truth of the facts in my story, and to give all key stakeholders the opportunity to speak and respond?
Mindfulness – What techniques of self-reflection and micro-meditation upon media law risks and approaches have I learned and implemented? What time have I devoted to working through each of the other factors here and in applying them to my situation at hand?
Concentration – How accomplished is my concentration upon the multiplicity of legal dimensions to the story in focus? How well have I focused upon each of them and worked systematically through its elements and the extent to which I have addressed them?
Interested? Please go to the Sage site to access the full article.
If you are interested in reading more about my application of mindful journalism to media law and ethics, please see my treatment of its relationship to defamation in the International Communication Gazette in my article titled ‘Enlightening communication analysis in Asia-Pacific: Media studies, ethics and law using a Buddhist perspective’. Its abstract and link to the full article is available here. See also the mindful approach to navigating mental health reporting restrictions I used with colleague Tom Morton, reported in the Pacific Journalism Review article “Zones of Silence”, accessible here.
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.
© Mark Pearson 2017