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.
Key points:
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 plaintiff.
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.
  • Being fair.
  • 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 Greater Accuracy."

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."



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-- Frank Fee