The job of a journalist requires more than writing abilities, creativity, and good sources. Journalists must be careful; accurate reporting helps prevent journalists from being sued for libel.
What exactly is libel?
In his work Writing for Digital Media, Brian Carroll identifies libel as a written statement that damages the reputation of the subject about which the statement was written. Libel is usually a civil matter and must be printed or published, must be erroneous or false, and must be defamatory.
According to Carroll, of all the lawsuits filed against mass media, three-fourths are allegations of libel. In order for the plaintiff, the entity or individual suing, to win the lawsuit, it must meet a six-pronged burden. These elements include:
- Defamation of the plantiff’s reputation or character
- Identification of the plaintiff as the subject written about
- Publication of the defamatory information
- Fault on behalf of the media
- Falsity of information written
- Injury suffered by the plaintiff (for the purposes of awarding monetary damages)
What does libel have to do with defamation?
Defamatory, or derogatory, information must hold the plaintiff up to hatred, ridicule, or contempt, according to Carroll. This type of information can include accusing someone of a crime, of moral failings, or of serious business and/or professional shortcomings. Stories that suggest a pattern of this behavior are almost always found defamatory.
However, simply because information qualifies as defamation does not automatically
make it libel. In order for the publication of defamatory information to be illegal, it must be false. When information is published about a public figure, like a governor or celebrity, the plaintiff must prove the journalist knew the information was false or wrote the information with a reckless disregard for the truth. This is called actual malice. On the other hand, if the defamatory information is published about a private citizen, the plaintiff need only prove that the journalist acted negligently, that he or she simply failed to exercise ordinary or reasonable care, according to Carroll. Because public figures have very little private and protected aspects of their lives, the plaintiff is held to a harder standard of falsity if he or she is a public figure suing for libel.
A good journalist can avoid a libel case altogether by conducting a thorough investigation, verifying information from official and reliable sources, and contacting the subject of a story for commentary.
Sources and Image Credit
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