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Why media liability insurance is crucial: new INN case study

January 10, 2023

With all of the financial challenges facing small newsrooms these days, media liability insurance may seem like an unnecessary expense. But anyone producing journalism today runs the risk of being sued for defamation, which can derail a newsroom even if the lawsuit fails. This is particularly true in states without legislation meant to curb strategic lawsuits against public participation, also known as SLAPPs. 

In a new case study released today, the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) spoke with member newsrooms to explore what happens when a newsroom faces a defamation lawsuit, with or without media liability insurance. 

When an Idaho businessman decided to sue Mother Jones magazine in 2013, he deliberately kept his lawsuit under $75,000, meaning that the case would stay in Idaho — a state without an anti-SLAPP law. Over the next three years, the magazine’s CEO, Monika Bauerlein, estimates that the suit cost more than $3 million, with roughly 75% covered by their media liability insurance policy. 

At East Lansing Info in Michigan, the small outlet’s coverage of the legal troubles of a local real estate developer led to a libel suit. It was then that founder Alice Dreger learned that the personal liability insurance she had been paying for wouldn’t cover the news outlet for defamation. Though the developer’s case was eventually dismissed, Dreger estimates that she spent $50,000 of her own money defending the case. 

When Claire Schoen began looking into media liability insurance for the small, Connecticut-based publication Nancy on Norwalk, she assumed that a recent lawsuit filed against the outlet would prohibit her from finding insurance. (The suit was withdrawn before a judge could rule.) But she was pleased to find a local broker would insure the outlet going forward. 

As a news outlet focused on investigative journalism, the Center for Public Integrity has a long history of dealing with defamation lawsuits. And for the outlet’s chief of staff, Jin Ding, having a comprehensive media liability policy is part of their commitment to their staffers and freelancers. This means protecting their journalists from everything from subpoenas to full-blown lawsuits so that they can continue to do their work. 

According to Rina Hamzey of Endless Insurance Services, INN’s preferred broker, news outlets governing work like investigative news will likely pay higher premiums than those covering general news. Most policies will cover freelancers or independent contractors, and they will allow a news organization to use pro bono attorneys to review content before it is published. For a publication that has been sued in the past, Hamzey says that insurance companies want to see that the outlet has taken steps to avoid future potential issues. 

INN strongly recommends that all independent news organizations carry insurance, especially media liability insurance and directors & officers insurance. 

Want to learn more about media liability insurance and resources available to your newsroom? Visit this page. INN also offers a how-to guide, Buying Media Insurance, for its members; please email to get a copy. See here to watch a free webinar about media liability insurance from INN and Media Risk Consultants. Email with additional questions or to set up a consultation with staff. 

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