Can Journalists Be Sued for Defamation?

Understanding the Law
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The #MeToo movement introduced a new type of journalistic investigation involving public denunciations. But is it legal? And can journalists be sued for such reports? 

#MeToo is the name of a movement to denounce cases of sexual abuse in the media. It began in October 2017 in the United States with the publication of investigations in the New York Times and the New Yorker. These reports covered allegations of sexual violence by American film producer Harvey Weinstein. These reports triggered a global wave of denunciations of sexual violence on social media. A Quebec version of the movement with the hashtag #MoiAussi (#MeToo) also emerged. 

In the wake of these US reports, investigative journalism in Quebec led to reports of testimony of sexual violence here, notably concerning Éric Salvail and Gilbert Rozon

An investigative method inspired by #MeToo 

The investigative method employed by the New York Times and the New Yorker was used for a 2017 article in La Presse documenting numerous complaints about star choreographer Steve Bolton. The report led to a defamation lawsuit against La Presse and the report’s authors. 

The journalists defended the parameters of their investigative method, inspired by the #MeToo movement, which they described as: 

  • meeting with several people who denounced the behaviour 
  • at least one person must have spoken with their face uncovered 
  • the testimonies must describe a pattern of behaviour 
  • the examples reported in the article must have been corroborated 
  • the testimonies must concern someone in a position of power or authority 

In an August 2023 judgment, a court ruled in favour of the journalists and confirmed that journalistic standards had been met. However, the judgment is now under appeal. 

The risk of defamation   

Investigative journalism is an integral part of the journalistic profession. It plays a fundamental role in a democracy by uncovering scandals of interest to the public and informing citizens about key social issues. It often exposes matters that were unknown or poorly understood by the general public. 

But this type of journalism is not without risks — both for the journalists and the people who see their reputations publicly harmed. For the journalists, one risk is to be sued for defamation. But even if all investigative reporting risks damaging the reputations of the people being investigated, such reports are not forbidden.  

Defamation in brief 

Courts generally consider there is defamation when someone’s words harm the honour, dignity, or reputation of another person or create an unfavourable opinion about them. Defamation is at the crossroads of the right to freedom of expression and the right to respect of one’s privacy and reputation.

With these types of reports, journalists must manage the disclosure of important information and the risks of invading the privacy and damaging the reputation of the people involved. 

Rules for journalists 

Like anyone else, journalists can be held responsible for defamation and ordered to compensate a person whose reputation has been unjustly harmed. But to be held responsible, they must be found to have committed a fault in carrying out their work.  

When a report contains statements that harm a person’s reputation, a court will examine whether the report covers a matter of public interest and whether professional journalistic standards have been respected. The general impression left by the report is of great importance.  

Unlike some other professions in Quebec, journalists are not governed by a professional order. However, courts refer to the ethical standards of the profession, which are found in the Code of Ethics of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (federation of professional journalists of Quebec) and that of the Conseil de presse (press council). Other media, such as CBC/Radio-Canada, have their own standards and practices. All of these can assist a court in evaluating whether a journalist committed a fault in carrying out their work.