Avoiding libel is one of the most important responsibilities of an editor and a newspaper generally. It is also something we don’t talk about nearly enough.
First and foremost, we want to treat our readers, sources and advertisers fairly. We also wish to avoid the enormous needless expense that could come from a libel suit.
I’m sure you are with me so far. But could you define libel for me – I mean without consulting Google?
Recently, several of us have had conversations about libel. As a result, I thought it prudent to put together a primer and facilitate a wider dialogue to follow. Let’s make sure that all of our publishers and newsroom managers know the risks and how to avoid libel.
As I often do, I asked R.B. Brenner, deputy director of the Stanford Journalism Program for help. He forwarded my request to David Snyder of the law firm Sheppard Mullin. Snyder was once a reporter himself and now advises newspapers on legal issues including First Amendment concerns. Snyder was kind enough to forward me this discussion of libel from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
I want you to take 10 minutes to read it today. Please pay particular attention to the dozen or so bullet points under the heading “advice for avoiding libel suits.” Here are a couple of what for me are the most important things to remember: …
- Truth is your best defense. Be fair, be accurate and you’ll sleep much better.
- The law treats public figures differently from private citizens but you may not always know the difference between those categories. It’s a slippery subject.
- Headlines and cutlines can be libelous even if the story itself is not.
- Just because someone said it doesn’t make you immune from prosecution because of it. That includes letters to the editor. Don’t let letter writers libel others.
- A correction or a retraction may be the right thing to do, but it may not get you out of a libel jam. In fact, if you are clumsy with it it can be seen as an acknowledgment that you printed a falsity, and repeating that libel in a correction can increase damages.
- If someone calls to say they are going to sue you for libel, keep your cool. Be polite and professional. Don’t admit error or fault. Get off the phone as soon as possible and contact your supervisor.
Of course, there are other terrific resources as well. The back of your AP Stylebook has another great synopsis of the issues at hand. Because this is so important, I want to set up a call soon to discuss libel and make sure any questions you might have are answered. I’ll probably ask that at least one person from each Wick property be on the line for that call. You’ll be hearing more about that soon.