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LEGAL PROBLEMS

The main legal problems editors must spot and fix involves libel and invasion of privacy. Not quite as common are issues of negligence, obscenity and copyright infringement.

LIBEL

Part of the editor's job involves looking out for possible libel problems in stories, headlines, photos, graphics, captions and blurbs. If you can edit around the problem, do so, but also alert your supervisor of the problem and what you're doing. If you have doubts or questions, say so and pass the problem on to your supervisor or the staff attorney...
Libel is one of the two kinds of defamation, meaning a statement that damages someone's reputation or livelihood by bringing that person into hatred, ridicule or contempt in the eyes of a substantial and respectable group. Slander is when you say something that defames someone's character. Libel is when you publish, or, in many states, broadcast something that defames someone's character...

SOME COMMON LIBELOUS SITUATIONS

Here are some common situations in which you should be on the lookout for libel:
Make sure accident, crime and court stories contain nothing that convicts a person before trial. All suspects are assumed innocent until they confess or are proven guilty by a jury. If a suspect you convicted in the media is later found not guilty, you could face a libel suit.
Make sure that any damaging statements in opinion pieces concern matters of opinion rather than matters of fact. Opinions are not true or false, but facts are.
Insist that news stories stick to observable, provable facts. Many libel problems could be avoided if editorializing value judgments were edited out of news stories...
It's dangerous to make assumptions--as a reporter or an editor. For example, if someone has been laid off, that doesn't mean he was fired. Fired implies that someone messed up and was kicked out. But someone may be laid off because the economy is bad, with no personal blame at all...

LIBEL LAWSUITS CAN BE COSTLY

Although journalists are no longer imprisoned for libel, as they were in colonial days under British law, carelessness with the facts can cost journalists and their employers staggering amounts of money.

  • In 1995, ABC was forced to apologize to the Phillip Morris Co. after alleging the company had intentionally added nicotine to its cigarettes. The suit was settled out of court, but ABC paid an estimated $15 million to $20 million in legal fees.

COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT LIBEL

How can it be libel when we're just quoting someone else and not saying it ourselves? There's a common assumption that if something originated from an outside source, it's safe. That's wrong because the media are responsible for everything they publish or broadcast from whatever source—their reporters, wire services, syndicates and advertisers...
Can't we just protect ourselves with alleged, allegedly, accused or suspected? Not necessarily. And unfortunately, the Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law is confusing on the matter...
How can it be libel if we didn't name the person who's claiming damages? There is a common misunderstanding that if the person libeled isn't named, he or she can't sue. That's not true. If the person is described enough to be identifiable by someone in the know, then that can be the basis of a successful libel suit.
How can it be libel if the person's reputation is already so low it couldn't be damaged more? A man may be a notorious drunk, but that doesn't make him a thief.
How can it be libel when the story isn't about a person? Libel may involve a corporation, partnership or trust, or other business, as well as a nonprofit institution—not just individuals.

WHAT PROTECTS YOU FROM LIBEL LAWSUITS

If your publication's or station's lawyer has read and approved the wording, then, of course, you should feel reassured. But the attorney is usually called only in the trickiest situations when the editors can't solve the problem on their own or are unsure. As an editor, you are the first and main line of defense; you need to have a good understanding of what to look for and how to fix it...
Libel is legally justified when the story is true and can be proven. Truth is the best defense against a libel suit, but you have to be able to back it up. It would be a mistake, for example, to rely on the testimony of a doctor to back up a libelous claim if that would violate the doctor-patient privilege of confidentiality...
Libel is legally justified when the story is a fair, substantially accurate and complete account of judicial, legislative or executive proceeding of local, state or federal government. Quotation, you might falsely, think is protected if a police officer says a person is "guilty" or that this arrest "solves a long string of crimes." A suspect is not guilty until convicted, and such remarks are potentially troublesome if printed.
Libel is legally justified when the story is "fair comment or criticism" (as the courts say)—such as a book, movie, theater, concert or restaurant review—and none of the damaging statements is a matter of fact as opposed to a matter of opinion. Journalists are not protected, even if in a review, for misstatements of facts...
Libel is legally justified when the damaging statement is clearly a joke, not to be taken as the truth. A Saturday Night Live skit about Mario Cuomo implying he has organized crime ties is a good example...
Libel is legally justified when the subject of the damaging statement is dead. The maxim is, "You can't libel the dead," meaning someone has to be alive to be libeled.