Craft Lesson: Libel Pains

Craft Lessons

The very word strikes terror in the heart of every journalist.

Libelpublishing false statements that expose someone to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule in writing or pictures—can trigger a costly lawsuit or the possibility of a hefty payout to settle the case. Originally limited to newspapers, it now includes broadcast news on radio and television. Slander is another form of libel that involves oral communication.

In 2017, Disney, the parent company of ABC News, settled a $1.9 billion libel lawsuit by paying a South Dakota beef production company $177 million. At issue was a 2012 broadcast that described a type of meat filler used in ground beef as ammonia-treated “pink slime,” once used only in dog food, according to the broadcast story and news reports. Disney’s insurers, the beef company said, paid the remainder of the total undisclosed settlement. The company, which maintained the filler is 100% beef, said it lost millions in sales and had to lay off 700 workers.

While such cases get big headlines, the reality is that routine stories that are insufficiently checked are behind most libel actions.

The bar is higher for public officials, and public figures—those who hold no office but are widely known. They must prove that the news organization knew the statement was false and published it anyway, known as “actual malice.” 

Failure to prove that led a federal judge to dismiss former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s 2022 lawsuit against The New York Times over an editorial linking her political rhetoric to a mass shooting. The editor in charge acknowledged he moved “too fast,” but insisted he didn’t act out of malice, just carelessness. The paper immediately put out a correction.

 THE ELEMENTS OF LIBEL

To prove they have been libeled by a  news organization, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a person must demonstrate six things:

1.    Publication in a newspaper, broadcast, or website.

2.    Identification. The person doesn’t have to be named if their identity—a local coach, say—is clear.

3.    Defamation that exposes a person to hatred and ridicule or injures her business. (Libel suits are often called defamation actions.)

4.    False. Were the allegations false?  Even an altered or incorrect quote can be false.

5.    Fault. Did the publication know the story was false and defamatory and publish it anyway?

6.    Injury/ Harm. The heart of a libel action is that the person’s reputation suffered injury, stated in dollars.

 WINNING CAN HURT, TOO

Even winning a libel suit can be costly. 

In 2021, a federal court judge threw out a libel suit clearing Reveal, a nonprofit newsroom run by the Center for Investigative Reporting, from charges that it defamed Planet Aid, an international charity that received federal funds.                                                                                                                                                                 Reveals reports linked the charity to an alleged cult and questioned its spending.

While the judge’s decision is an unequivocal legal win for Reveal, it took more than four-and-a-half years and millions of dollars to get there,” wrote Reveal’s general counsel, D. Victoria Baranetsky, in an article about the case in Columbia Journalism Review.

Frank Greve, an investigative reporter for Knight Ridder Newspapers and a former colleague, beat back a libel suit, but he still called the experience “20 months of acute professional anxiety.” In his case, truth, as it is generally, was the best defense against a libel action.

But that doesn’t cover everything, as I discovered when Frank shared the lessons he learned with me:

  1. The tougher the story, the more generous a reporter should be in allowing its target to have his or her say.
  2. Reporting findings is more useful to readers than reporting conclusions. Distinguishing between findings and conclusions is libel insurance.
  3. Check all numbers. Check them again. Then get someone else to check them.
  4. If the target won’t comment, send a letter with your questions well before you publish. Follow up with a phone call. It’s impressive evidence of a reporter’s intent to be fair.
  5. Do some reporting on your sources’ motives.
  6. Listen to your inner voice that asks incessantly: Is what I’m writing fair?

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