Wick Communications

The three identifiers

In Media law on 1 Oct 2010 at 8:03 am

Want to be scared? I mean really, really scared? Look what Baltimore journalist Van Smith did to Ioannis Kafouros – and what a federal court subsequently did to Smith.

The court awarded Kafouros, a Miami restaurateur, $350,000, ruling that he had been defamed by the Baltimore City Paper reporter. What did Smith do to cost his employer a six-figure judgment?

He said the Miami Kafouros was a Baltimore man by the same name, a man his criminal conspirators knew as “Crazy John.” Unfortunately, for Smith and his employer, there are two Ioannis Kafouroses. The plaintiff’s attorney said Smith ran with the story “based on nothing more than a Google search and a five-minute conversation.”

Smith is a veteran reporter who by all accounts does good work. He just made an expensive mistake this time because he was careless. Let’s hope his bad fortune serves as a reminder for us all…

In my public records class the other day, instructor Tom Peele spoke of the importance of “three identifiers” to make extra sure that you are writing about the person you intend to write about. They are name (complete with a middle initial), date of birth and Social Security number. All three can be found on public documents from land deeds to DMV records to marriage licenses.

Obviously you won’t have all three all the time. I suggest you consider the weight of damning evidence you are about to present and the effect the story you are writing could have on the principals. It’s one thing to make a mistake like this if you are writing about a Boy Scout who has been promoted to Eagle or a new business in town. It’s another thing entirely if you are about to suggest a local guy is a federal fugitive. If you are doing the latter, make very, very sure you have identified the right person. It may well be better to hold the story until you have those three identifiers.

Clay

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