Journalists feel the chill in a changing media world.

Author:Cooper, John

Journalism students who are mulling over important questions such as "Where will I find a job?" and "Will I be able to cover the legal beat?" as they face a potentially shrinking job market, may have more than just job prospects to worry about.

Today, the media world is rapidly shrinking, consolidating, shedding jobs and shutting local media outlets. According to the Canadian Media Guild, between 2008 and 2013, Canada lost 10,000 media jobs. More recently, PostMedia cut 90 jobs and consolidated newspaper operations in several cities.

What does this mean for up-and-coming journalists? With big business running the media and advertising dollars become more sought-after, there may be less media management support for uncovering big stories that could bring reporters into a situation where they might be threatened with libel. The result? A controversial, high-profile, contentious story may never see the light of day because of libel chill.

Defined as the reluctance to publish or broadcast stories for fear of a defamation lawsuit, libel chill may make journalists think twice about running stories that may be critical of big business or overly-influential politicking, or which may shed light on, for instance, under-the-table payouts or backroom deals between politicians and developers.

Taking up the fight are organizations like the Canadian Association of Journalists, which has been pressing the Supreme Court to reject expanding libel laws that may impact the freedom of public interest journalism, and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), founded in 1981 to protect journalists' rights to free expression.

CJFE Executive Director Tom Henheffer said in an email interview that libel chill has intensified because "newsrooms have fewer and fewer resources, meaning they have less money for lawyers and as such are less likely to run a story if it could result in a potential lawsuit. (And) because of the lack of resources, there are fewer staff jobs, meaning more work is done by freelancers who aren't covered by an outlet's libel insurance (and can't afford it on their own)."

The result is that freelancers may hold off on pitching a story that might cause them financial problems. A recent exception involved Georgia Straight freelancer Laura Robinson, who wrote of allegations of residential school abuse involving a former Vancouver Olympics official and was subsequently sued for defamation. The action led to a highly publicized court battle...

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