We are told that the web is where it’s at when it comes to communicating with the public: Web 2.0, Twitter, Social Media, Crowd Sourcing. Government is struggling to figure out how not to be left behind yet stay relevant.
The days are gone when a government department could issue a news release, hope to get it picked up by a few major newspapers and broadcasters and figure its work was done. With the fragmentation of the media and their audiences, it’s not enough to depend on traditional outlets to get the message out, especially to the millions of Canadians who never pick up a newspaper or watch the news.
One of the positive outcomes of this massive change has been the democratization of journalism. The old barriers to entry have been erased as thoroughly as the Berlin Wall was in 1989. In Syria, where a dictatorial regime has systematically repressed a free press and blocked access to the country to foreign correspondents, citizen journalists chronicled the revolt on the streets on a daily basis through intrepid reporting on the Internet.
But the elimination of these barriers has created a set of new problems and challenges. If anybody is a would-be journalist, who will protect the public from an onslaught of erroneous reports caused by sloppy practices, or worse still, the willful distortion of the truth by a malicious blogger or citizen journalist?
That situation came to the fore recently in a lawsuit in Oregon where Kevin Padrick, a lawyer acting as the trustee in a bankruptcy case, was accused by a blogger of enriching himself at the expense of creditors. In a series of over-the-top blog posts, Crystal Cox, a self-described investigative blogger, accused Padrick of bribery, tax fraud, money laundering and more.
Cox, who has produced more than 400 blogs over the past five years, has a long history of singling out lawyers and business executives she disagrees with and accusing them of corruption. She typically hones in on her prey by creating a domain name and bombarding the web with allegations against them. Padrick, who had no history of wrongdoing and was praised by a committee of unsecured creditors in the case, saw his reputation destroyed online. “A woman whom I did not know, who had no connection to me or my company or with this case … has turned my business life and personal life upside down,” he said.
Padrick sued for defamation. In court, Cox claimed protection under Oregon’s shield laws for journalists, designed to protect reporters from being forced to identify the sources of their stories. U.S. District Court Judge Marco Hernandez ruled that as a blogger, Cox couldn’t claim protection as a journalist because she had no professional qualifications, wasn’t affiliated to a recognized news outlet and showed no proof that she had adhered to basic journalistic standards like editing and fact checking.
The judge’s decision allowed the jury to award Padrick and his company $2.5-million in damages. Defenders of free speech have decried the ruling as a threat to free speech that depends on an outdated definition of what a journalist is and fails to take into account of the new world of blogging and citizen journalism.
Yet the Web can’t be allowed to provide open season for people with grudges or deep-seated prejudices to slander and libel individuals at whim and without consequence. In Britain and in Quebec there have been proposals to regulate bloggers or “licence” professional journalists; these proposals are too draconian and could end up imposing limits on free speech and limiting the spread of benign forms of citizen journalism.
Any solution will have to depend in part on brave individuals like Padrick, who dare confront their online attackers in court. But the dangers of the web are not always so clear-cut. Often, the sins are ones of inattention and inaccuracy, rather than the obvious outrages of slander and libel.
But if you’re venturing further afield into the Wild West of individual bloggers, independent websites and online opinion, it gets more complicated not just for the reader but also for the public sector communicator who may be simply trying to get the message out. You have to remember that you’re often dealing with primary, raw material, unedited and unscrutinized. It’s your job to compare, to weigh and filter the material using your own judgment and experience.
And remember, you can’t believe everything you read, especially online.
Alan Freeman is public servant in residence at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. Previously, he served as ADM, Consultations and Communications, at the Department of Finance.