Legal Risks In Journalism

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My Perspective

With this assignment, the class was required to use five references in researching and writing an article about the similarities and differences of the media lawsuit terms libel, slander, defamation, and privacy. We were also tasked with finding actual court cases of lawsuits that have been successfully heard in the U.S. judicial system. In my opinion, this was one of the best assignments of the class because it taught that there are real-world consequences for shoddy journalism practices.

The information that I learned during this assignment was very enlightening for me as a writer. I have heard these terms in the news throughout the years and while I had a general knowledge of what they meant, the information I learned researching the sources for this assignment really brought home the fact that as a writer (or speaker) I have to be very cognizant of sticking to the facts and being respectful of other people’s privacy. Without complete fact verification and obtaining consent from my subjects, I could be vulnerable to a lawsuit. That’s something I do not want to experience!

Legal Risks In Journalism

Avoiding lawsuits is essential to the success of any news reporting agency and its reporters. Reporters should adhere to the facts when publishing or verbally speaking about their subject(s). Following strict fact-finding and reporting protocols are critical to averting lawsuits. Media lawsuits such as libel, slander, defamation, and privacy fall under a legal category called media law. These lawsuits are civil matters, which if proven, can force the defendant to pay monetary damages to the victim. Each of these lawsuits, along with a case example, will be discussed in the following article.

For material to be considered libel, it must have been published through print (this includes photos), radio, TV, or video. In addition, the material must be a lie about someone that harms the person or their character, standing, or status by bringing disdain, animosity, disrespect, or contempt from other people against them. Libel must be a malicious defaming statement. Publishing a lie to one person claiming it as fact in a statement and not the personal view of the reporter is libel. If someone makes a libelous statement about a dead person, the family of the deceased person can bring a lawsuit against the defendant. In a case where a magazine is involved, the person who is defamed can ask that the item to be publicly retracted in the next publication. The right to file a lawsuit is negated once the item is retracted.

An example of a libel lawsuit is that of a former female high school student from Mooresville, North Carolina who sued Gawker Media Group and Deep Dive Media because they posted malicious headlines and articles as well as digitally altered photos on their website. In the lawsuit, the young woman stated that the website posted a photo that had black bars placed over the top of the girl’s private parts (to give the reader the idea that her privates were exposed) and a part of her face. The website claimed that the photos of the young woman (age 18 at the time of the incident) were taken at her 2011 graduation where she supposedly lifted up her graduation gown and exposed her bare private parts. The young woman stated in her lawsuit that she has been “harassed and ridiculed since the website posting of the altered photos and that the accompanying articles and headlines humiliated her and led to public scorn.”

The original, unaltered photo depicts the girl sitting with her fellow graduates, holding her graduation program in her lap. The girl’s attorney had asked Gawker Media Group and Deep Dive Media for a retraction, which they refused to do.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Voorhees ruled that the lawsuit would go to trial. He ruled “…the First Amendment does not protect defamatory, false statements. The woman also is a private citizen, which affords her more privacy protection under the law than a public figure.” Should the woman win her lawsuit, she could be awarded up to $250,000 in damages. The outcome of this lawsuit is pending (Marusak).

Slander happens when someone tells at least one person a lie about someone else, which results in harming the person or harming his or her character, standing, or status. Slander is different from libel in that it does not have to be published; it only has to be spoken. Unless malicious intent can be proven, damages are limited to actual damages suffered. Lies pertaining to committed crimes, nasty diseases, or job insufficiencies are clearly malicious and therefore often result in the victim receiving money for damages.

An example of a slander lawsuit is that of James Stern versus the Ku Klux Klansman, Edgar Ray Killen, Killen’s wife, and lawyer. Stern alleges that statements made by the three regarding Edgar Ray’s transfer of land and his book/movie rights via power of attorney have hurt his reputation. Edgar Ray Killen, his wife, and lawyer have made statements that Stern fraudulently obtained these items. Stern claims that while sharing a cell in prison, Killen signed over his land and movie/book rights to him. Killen is in prison for manslaughter for killing three civil rights workers in 1964. His story was the basis for the movie, Mississippi Burning. Stern is seeking at least $6 million in damages. The outcome of this lawsuit is unknown (Mohr).

Defamation is communicating deliberate lies as fact, which are written and/or spoken, that cause harm to the person or their character, standing, or status by bringing disdain, animosity, disrespect, or contempt from other people against them. Slander and libel are defamation. In a slander lawsuit, there only has to be spoken malice present in order for there to be just cause for a lawsuit. In a defamation lawsuit, there must be either slander or libel in order for there to be just cause for a lawsuit.

An example of a defamation lawsuit is the case of Sarah Jones, a former Cincinnati Bengal cheerleader, versus website. Ms. Jones sued the website, for publishing comments claiming that she was licentious and had contracted communicable sexual diseases during her time as a Bengal cheerleader. U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman ruled that website was not shielded by the Communications Decency Act of 1996 because the author commented on posts about her suggested sexual looseness. Sarah Jones was awarded $338,000 upon winning the lawsuit (Hannah).

Privacy lawsuits fall into five categories. They are: Intrusion upon Seclusion – encroaching upon one’s privacy in ways that are deemed unreasonable or offensive, Publicity that Discloses Private Information – sharing one’s private information with the public in an objectionable manner, False-Light Publicity – falsely publicizing one’s personal information, Appropriation of Name or Likeness – sharing one’s likeness or name without prior consent, and Theft of Trade Secrets – stealing trade secrets in order to unfairly compete with competitors.

An example of a privacy lawsuit is “John Doe” versus A&E Television and Gangland Productions. This lawsuits falls under the Appropriation of Name or Likeness privacy category. In his lawsuit, John Doe accuses A&E Television and Gangland Productions of endangering his life by not blurring him out prior to televising his interview for a documentary about the white supremacist gang, Public Enemy No. 1. John Doe states in his lawsuit that the production companies promised to conceal his identity. John Doe was a police informant who came to the taping with items to conceal his identity, but was told that they weren’t necessary.

The production companies brought forth an anti-SLAPP motion in order to have the lawsuit dismissed. The motion was rejected; therefore, sending the case for appeal. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with John Doe’s claim and has recommended the case proceed to trial. The outcome of this case is pending and has been returned to the trial judge for further proceedings (Gardner).

The different types of media lawsuits are important to keep in mind when writing articles to publish on the web, TV, video, or print. Adhering to facts and not opinion is critical to writing and speaking about a story’s subject(s). Obtaining all consents during fact gathering and checking facts repeatedly for accuracy may prevent costly litigation and save time and reputations of newsrooms and its journalists.