Libel chill

QUESTION: A hostile interviewee lays down the gauntlet: “Publish that and I’ll sue you.” What’s the professional response?

Ask the interviewee what he or she is concerned about. Perhaps there is an outcome or aspect of the story that you have not considered. Maybe you discover a young son or daughter of the interviewee would be endlessly taunted at school by the broadcast or publication of the story. Consider what you can do to reduce harm the family might experience. Review what can be altered or omitted without affecting the integrity of the story. What consideration have you given to how your story affects the reputation of the person or organization involved? Have you afforded everyone enough time to respond? Can you defend all the methods used in preparing your story? Is there anything that you’ve done that you would be embarrassed about if exposed to the public? I believe that, along with being accurate, reporters have a duty to be fair and compassionate.

People have threatened to sue me three times but so far (touch wood) no one has ever followed through. Maybe I’m just lucky. I do know many reporters who have been sued and it’s a very stressful and unpleasant experience.

The last time someone threatened to sue me was last spring. It involved the rebroadcast of a documentary I had done months earlier. I called the woman to tell her about the story airing a second time. It turned out the interviewee’s situation had changed drastically since the interview. She believed rebroadcasting the story would hurt her marriage and her husband’s employment prospects. If I went ahead, she said she’d sue me and complain to the CBC ombud.

Listening to her story, I was torn. Months ago, the woman had been a willing interview and enthusiastically supported getting the story out to a national audience. In my mind, the story was already out. Other media had followed it. Her story was no longer a secret, so what was the harm? But I was also affected by the feelings of a woman who wanted to bury the past.

I heard her out, then told her that while I understood her feelings, she did not own the documentary and that the final decision was up to the show’s producers. They decided not to rebroadcast.

If your interviewee continues to threaten legal action, consult your editor and your lawyers. Discuss the merits of the story. What’s the potential liability? Is the story unflattering and defamatory? Could you prove the facts to be accurate? How about comments made on those facts — are they legally fair?

By answering these questions, you can determine whether your story is defensible. We all know what makes a good and important story. If it meets the legal and ethical standards of care, then go ahead.

Alison Crawford is an award-winning reporter with the CBC, now working as a national radio reporter in Ottawa. Before that, she was part of the network’s investigative team, based in Winnipeg. She’s been with the CBC since 1996.