Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

Libel basics and warning signs to know

By · Thursday, June 19th, 2014

A role of journalists and communicators is to ensure that published material is not libelous. This means they must have a basic understanding of libel law and what to do when in doubt about potentially libelous content.

It’s all about being aware and proactive, especially in situations where there are fewer “eyes” on stories. The everyday stories are the ones where carelessness or ignorance can lead to mistakes of a libelous nature.

Guidelines

These basic guidelines might help.

  1. Know the law. The “Briefing on Media Law” section of The Associated Press Stylebook offers a complete and concise synopsis of legal issues, including libel. Read and consult this resource regularly. Know the details of the libel law in your state.
  2. Know when to react. If you understand the key points of libel law, you will have the confidence to question material in a story that might be libelous and to act accordingly. You might need to rewrite or delete material or, perhaps, hold the story from publication. “Trust your gut” applies here. Deadline pressure is not a reason to ignore potentially libelous material.
  3. Know whom to ask. Be aware of the newsroom’s hierarchy regarding legal issues. Some news organizations have their own legal departments; others retain outside counsel. Regardless, know whom within the newsroom to alert first. On deadline, this can save time and ensure efficient handling of the situation.

Warning Signs

Be aware of times when problems most often arise.

When stories mention criminal acts, what might be criminal acts, or acts that in any way might be related to illegal activity. This covers crime and court stories, where reporting can be protected by what is called “qualified privilege.” If you report something that is wrong but it is based on an error police made, you usually are protected. You are not protected if you report on police activity from court papers or a police report but you make a mistake and get the facts wrong. Given this, if you are careful, these court and police stories are usually safe and fairly routine. The real problem: stories that mention what seem to be illegal acts that are not part of a journalists’ reporting on a courts or crime story.

When stories level personal charges. Watch for stories that call into question someone’s private or professional conduct, and no authorities — such as police, district attorneys or other legal authorities — are mentioned.

When stories include “hot” language. Besides crime, sex is a warning sign. So is a suggestion of mental illness or disease, or vices such as gambling, drinking, drug use or any kinds of unethical behavior or personal excesses, especially when these could cross into people’s business and professional lives and could reflect on, or affect, how they make a living.

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