J-333 / News Editing
Frank E. Fee Jr.
Lecture Recap - Day 9
This was an admittedly sketchy treatment
of libel, a subject you'll learn much more about in the media law class.
However, it's such an important issue for copy editors that we simply had
to say something about it. You will find more about libel and ethics in
your text, of course, and the AP Stylebook has a succinct treatment of
the subject and the relevant cases.
Libel basically is defined as a false
statement printed or broadcast about a person that tends to bring that
person into public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or to injure him or her
in the person's business or occupation. More simply, libel is injury to
reputation through falsehood.
It's estimated that 95 percent of libel
suits stem from stories that impute crime, immorality, incompetence or
inefficiency, and libelous stories arise from such everyday sources as
police reports, traffic cases, business reports, birth notices and engagements.
In short, anything you do may be ground for a libel suit.
Libel results from factual error or
inexact language -- breaches of accuracy -- and the chief causes of libel
are carelessness, misunderstanding libel law, and limitations of privilege.
Anyone can bring a libel suit. Winning
one may be another matter. In general, to prove libel from a false report,
a plaintiff must establish publication, identification and damages. Another
crucial issue, fault, depends on the plaintiff's status. If the plaintiff
is a public official or public figure, the plaintiff must prove that the
material was published when the defendant knew it was false, or had serious
doubts as to its truth but did not act on those doubts by checking further.
This is the test for actual malice.
If the plaintiff is a private individual,
the plaintiff need only prove the publisher or broadcaster acted negligently
in failing to ascertain that the statement was a false, and defamed the
Defenses in libel are several. One
that you seldom hear mentioned in the texts is just plain stonewalling
the plaintiff, making the process so long and expensive that he or she
either gives up or doesn't even try to file. While ethically and morally
repugnant, that device is one of the ways the supermarket tabs can continue
to print their trash with relative impunity; it is also a tactic of the
big, reputable companies as well.
Provable truth is considered the last
and best line of defense; best because it attacks the plaintiff's fundamental
claim of falsity, but last because many libel lawyers will tell you they
don't want to have things come down to whether the jury believes one side
or the other. They would much rather resolve the issue in terms of fault
(the plaintiff's status, or one of the other criteria.
Remember that the key word is "provable"
-- it may have been true when you published, but you've got to be able
to prove it was true when they sue.
Other defenses we mentioned include
qualified or conditional privilege, accurately and fairly
reporting information obtained from a forum where the principal actors
have absolute privilege, such as a courtroom or legislative chamber; opinion
and fair comment, although the courts have retreated from the old notion
of "no false opinion"; consent; and right of reply.
The essential point made by all libel
lawyers is that you want to avoid libel rather than defend yourself in
a libel suit, and you can do that by:
Handling facts carefully.
Publishing only when you are comfortable
that what has been written is true.
Asking good questions -- and being
careful about what you do with answers that don't give the full picture.
Scrupulously observing the rules of
Fair Comment, the Best Source, and One Last Check, along with all the other
tips in "44 Tips for
By the way, an issue of Editor &
Publisher magazine addressed one point that has come up in our discussions.
An interesting discussion on the liability of Web sites in libel can be
found in the article "Libel
suits threaten web publications."
Comments? Questions? Call 593-9851 (o) or 594-5251 (h), or send me an
message for virtual office hours. Or, stop in for a real visit. You're
-- Frank Fee