Online comments are libel risk for news organizations, researchers warn



News organizations struggle with how to manage comments on their websites because just one errant entry can spell a lawsuit, researchers told a recent Ryerson University conference on press freedom.

While some organizations, like CTV, deal with this risk by approving  public comments before they are posted online, others, like the Globe and Mail, rely on other users to report offending posters, according to the findings of two researchers who examined how news publications handle their comments. The scholars – Dan Rowe and Rebecca Fisch from Humber College and Torkin Manes LLP, respectively – said that while some web sites, like popular celebrity news site Lainey Gossip, forgo comments altogether —any policy is better than none at all.

“The general belief of the news community is that if you are not moderating at all, you will be tapped for liability,” Fisch warned.

The law on commenting libel in Canada is dramatically different from the status quo in the United States:  “Generally the rule in the U.S. is that newspapers and publications are totally protected from comments made by third parties,” Fisch said. This protection applies regardless of whether sites moderate or edit their comments.

The rules are vastly different for Canadian news organizations:  if they are accused of libel for a comment posted on their web site, they must prove that they have taken action to keep the offending material from showing up in the first place.

The panel discussion, titled “When everyone is a journalist: risks, opportunities and implications for press freedom,” also touched on how business models and practices in online reporting affect the news industry as a whole.

Ryerson journalism instructors Leigh Felesky and Gavin Adamson at a panel on online reporting

Leigh Felesky, a Ryerson journalism instructor, said new media business models have implications for press freedom. Since a large amount of online revenue comes from advertising, there is a growing concern that the decision to post or not post a story on a web site is increasingly influenced by revenues from traffic, she said. Popular articles get posted; good journalism that is less popular and may generate fewer page views is put at risk.

Felesky said the cost of generating a story also threatens to curtail what gets published. She pointed, for example, to a leaked document called the “AOL Way,” which provides guidance for major AOL properties like the Huffington Post.  The document says pieces of content should cost the site $84 to produce. Both the cost of the piece and how much revenue it generates are built into the publishing platforms that AOL uses, allowing editors to track performance.

The concern, Felesky said, is that when editors can see how much money is being made and spent on a piece of content, they may be influenced to withhold, bury or refrain from reporting on unprofitable stories in the future. This could lead to a shift to hit-friendly pieces that generate revenue, instead of stories with real news value.

Felesky said that ideally, online business models will be refined and the ad-based method will fall out of favour leading to less emphasis on hits, page views and click-rates.

“We need to innovate our way out of this,” Felesky said.

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