As a journalism professor, I instill in my young charges the importance of understanding and avoiding defamation. And the recent Fox News settlement drives that point home, serving as an example of how First Amendment protections often clash with libel and slander laws.
The network agreeing to pay Dominion Voting Systems a nearly $800 million settlement over false election claims highlights that the legal aspects of defamation remain one of the trickiest to understand and navigate for most Americans — and yes, you can count journalists and educators among them.
“Social media and the 24-hour news cycle provide a multitude of platforms for critical voices, and companies no longer risk complacency in response to the publication of potentially false information,” according to a Law.com commentary, which reviewed other cases.
Even though the Constitution guarantees the right to free speech and a free press, there is a catch.
Whenever media outlets such as Fox News and others abuse those protections, they can step over that proverbial line and face the legal wrath for committing defamation: the act of harming someone’s or something’s reputation through false statements either written, aka libel, or spoken, aka slander.
As falsehoods and inaccuracies continue to spread, journalists more than ever before must cross-examine stories like prosecuting attorneys — attempting to discredit everything from statements to images. And, if the stories can withstand the intense scrutiny of editors, then they are likely fit for publication or broadcast.
The Connors Forum for a Healthy Democracy, an initiative seeking to disseminate high-quality nonpartisan information on societal issues, states on its website that “double- and triple-checking the credibility of sources … as well as the accuracy, thoroughness, attribution, and fairness of the information itself” are essential steps.
Instances of defamation, which can be as obvious as accusing a person of something outright or as subtle as hinting at someone’s poor behavior, occur more frequently than most people realize.
There are schools of thought that view lawyers as foolproof safeguards. As a journalist and an educator, I advise reporters, editors and bloggers to consult a lawyer regarding possible litigation arising from an article or a posting. This has been the practice for some with strong resources, but mainly for highly controversial and sensitive stories. However, these legal advisers are not always reporters, whose job it is to do the legwork of ensuring the accuracy of their stories, which may be as simple as spelling a name correctly.
Also, common misconceptions exist that sprinkling the word “allegedly” throughout a story is a sure-fire shield against libel and slander. However, that is also incorrect and misguided. It must be clear who is doing the alleging, and often that person or agency must be an authoritative source.
To illustrate this point, the average person would be hard-pressed to identify potential libel in the following case.
- A 45-year-old Chicago man is scheduled to appear in Cook County court Monday after he allegedly shoved a man protesting outside of City Hall last week.
The main question to ask here is who is doing the alleging — the reporter or an official source? It should be an official source. An easy fix is inserting the “ordinance citation” to resolve the issue.
- A 45-year-old Chicago man is scheduled to appear in Cook County court Monday on an ordinance citation for battery after allegedly shoving a man protesting outside of City Hall last week.
There are loaded words such as “victim,” “hit” and scores of others that can be potentially defamatory — if they are not used knowledgeably and judiciously.
On matters of public interest, the media can publish opinions about public officials and public figures — without fear of losing a lawsuit. This protection falls under fair comment and criticism.
- The mayor is neglecting the public’s welfare by refusing to appoint an arbitrator to address the union’s grievances regarding the crippling transit strike.
Defamation does not have to be sensational to be libelous. Misidentifying someone in a story, a photograph, an online post — or even misusing a word — could result in a litigious nightmare for journalists and their respective organizations.
“Don’t think as an editor that you are immune from a libel lawsuit based on an article you edited but didn’t write,” according to ACES: The Society for Editing. “If you edit someone else’s communication, you can be held equally as liable as the person who wrote or created the communication.”
That is among the things I hammer into my students.
Michael A. Deas is an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and is a former content editor at the Chicago Tribune. He is also co-director of the Connors Forum for a Healthy Democracy.
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