During the last two summers, I interned at a local newspaper called The Advance Leader to learn about journalism. I discovered that reporters worry about being sued for libel almost more than anything else related to their profession. Today I am going to talk to you about what libel is, what causes it, and how to defend against it.
Libel is defined by Webster's dictionary as "any false and malicious written or printed statement, or any sign, picture, or effigy, tending to expose a person to public ridicule, hatred, or contempt or injure a person's reputation in any way." Almost 95% of all libel suits against publications result from ordinary news stories, such as those charging criminal activity, immoral conduct, or incompetence. When a person or an organization makes those charges, it is best for the news organization to include a response or statement from the person(s) being accused. That way, both sides of the story are presented for the public.
Now that you know what libel is, I will next explain its causes. Most reasons for libel lawsuits stem from carelessness, a misunderstanding of the law, or limitations of the privilege defense. Sometimes, a story will contain factual errors or unclear language. In fact, people will occasionally send to a paper a bogus engagement notice about two people who don't like each other. If the paper runs the announcement, it can be sued for libel because it didn't check to see if the information was accurate. Libel suits can also be initiated over errors in a news account or if it can be shown that the news organization relayed the material with malicious intent.
Next, the defenses to libel. There are several, one of which is when the facts stated are probably true or can be proven. Also, public officials have the privilege of saying whatever they want to, though they must deal with the consequences of their statements by public opinion. Another libel defense is known as fair comment. The publication of defamatory material made up of opinion on a public matter is not libelous, although any facts in the piece must be accurate. The court stated, in Hoeppner vs. Dunkirk Printing, that:
"Everyone has a right to comment on matters of public interest and concern, provided they do so fairly and with an honest purpose. Such comments or criticism are not libelous, however severe in their terms, unless they are written maliciously. Thus it has been held that books, prints, pictures and statuary publicly exhibited, and the architecture of public buildings and actors and exhibitors are all the legitimate subjects of newspapers' criticism, and such criticism fairly and honestly made is not libelous, however strong the terms of censure may be."
In other words, movie, book, and music reviews are all legal. This does not stop those reviewed from suing for libel, however. Around 1900, a singing group known as the Cherry Sisters sued the Des Moines Register over a review of their act which read, in part, "Their long skinny arms, equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and anon waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailings of damned souls issued therefrom." After listening to the sisters' performance, the judge ruled in the newspaper's favor.
There are also rules that regard the covering of public and private figures. The press has much protection when covering public affairs; for instance, public officials have to prove malice when suing. Public figures are defined as prominent individuals or anyone involved in a controversy trying to sway its outcome. Private figures are merely explained as being a non-public figure. For them, most states just require some proof that there was negligence on the part of the media organization. In addition, anybody who is somehow involved in a news event or a matter of public interest loses their right to privacy. If you don't believe in that, just think back to the scandals of the past year. Who can forget Amy Fisher, Joey Buttafuoco, the Bobbitts, the Menendez brothers, and, of course, Tonya and Nancy. Once they entered the public eye, we ended up knowing considerably more about their lives than we really needed to. Another, less sensational case of loss of privacy, would be that of Kenneth Lakeburg, father of the siamese twins who were separated at birth two years ago. After the story about the separation entered the public arena, we were treated to news accounts detailing his drug abuse problems. In effect, he lost his privacy.
To conclude, libel, defined as damage to one's reputation, is usually caused by carelessness, misinformation, and privilege defense limitation. The easiest, best way to avoid being charged with libel is to make sure that the information or charges to be exposed to public scrutiny are accurate. Otherwise, one might get sued, and end up owing a fortune in legal fees. Thank you.