Journalists admit to self-censorship over defamation fears

Australian journalists have withheld information they know to be true because of a fear of the risk of defamation action, new survey data says.

Feb 28, 2023, updated Feb 28, 2023
The survey found an "overwhelming majority" of respondents highlighted struggles working in the industry. (Image: Pexels)

The survey found an "overwhelming majority" of respondents highlighted struggles working in the industry. (Image: Pexels)

Just under 50 per cent of more than 1000 journalists surveyed reported the fear of legal action prevented them publishing certain material.

Results from the anonymous Medianet survey also showed 41 per cent of journalists believed defamation laws in Australia were too strict for the media.

Respondents felt editors, publishers and media lawyers were “highly conservative” when it came to publishing potentially defamatory material because of the financial risk.

The finding comes with a number of defamation cases before the courts, including Lachlan Murdoch’s action against Crikey and Bruce Lehrmann’s civil case against Network Ten and News Life Media, the News Corp Australia company behind

In other findings, an “overwhelming majority” of respondents highlighted struggles working in the industry.

“Almost every single respondent (98 per cent), felt that public interest journalism in Australia had been threatened in 2022, whether that be due to defamation laws, disinformation or lack of resources and staff, among other factors,” Medianet managing director Amrita Sidhu said.

Some 45 per cent of respondents said they had been abused or harassed because of their work, with many reporting receiving death threats, online abuse or trolling, or being physically assaulted.

Burnout affected almost three quarters of journalists surveyed.

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“So many journalists discussed the personal toll of being overworked, underpaid and burnt out, along with tight deadlines, feeling undervalued and covering difficult news stories including floods, war and Covid,” Sidhu said.

More than 10 per cent of respondents also reported experiencing racial discrimination or abuse as part of their work.

Asked how the industry could improve cultural representation, the “overwhelming majority” suggested more diverse hiring, especially for management or board positions.

The results are based on two anonymous surveys between October and November 2022.


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