Wick Communications

Posts Tagged ‘Libel’

Email, libel and us

In journalism on 27 Oct 2016 at 2:09 pm


Half Moon Bay Review staff writer Kaitlyn Bartley pointed me to something she termed “a sobering read.” And boy is it ever.

The post unfurls the story of a $6 million libel judgment against the Raleigh News and Observer. The judgment — including six figures for punitive damages — hinged on the internal communications between N&O staffers prior to publication of a damning peek into the State Bureau of Investigations. I’m talking about emails. The court read emails between newspaper colleagues, and that led the jury to decide the newspaper acted with malice.

I’ve said it before, and here as well, and I’ll say it again: The emails we send to one another can be subpoenaed and that could be an embarrassing thing. Every snarky email you send can be used against you and could even threaten the viability of your news organization.

In the case at hand, emails that I am pretty sure were innocuous newsroom communications looked damning in black and white. From the CJR report:

Assistant features editor Brooke Cain, who was a news researcher in 2010, was asked about her emails with reporter Mandy Locke in preparation for the story about SBI agent Beth Desmond. In a June 2010 email asking Cain to make a public records search, Locke wrote that she had narrowed her focus to a few SBI agents and firearms analysts “that we’re bearing down on.” Also in June, Locke had learned that Desmond had once been a ballet dancer with the Juilliard Dance Ensemble. “Bingo!” Locke wrote to Cain. The researcher responded: “Sounds like an excellent main character for a crime novel.” Locke wrote: “How in the world this woman went from ballet to firearms identification work is beyond me.” …
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When the lawyer calls

In Legal on 14 Jan 2016 at 3:18 pm


In the course of human events, you will screw up. You’ll mess up a name, misspell the restaurant you’re profiling, get the score wrong. It happens. Trust me. You’ll write a correction and move on. It’s generally all you can do.

Occasionally, the mistakes are more important than a misspelling. Sometimes, they really irk someone in the story. You likely know how those days go, too. The city manager calls, screaming that you got the budget figures wrong. The nice lady in your office is mad because you indicated her living husband has died. The local businessman calls your boss because you said — incorrectly — that his beloved eatery closed.

It’s usually a good idea to try to explain the mistake, cop to being human, and promise a correction. It may be a good idea to make the change online (along with an italicized note saying you’ve done so.) The quicker you can admit to your mistake and take corrective action, the better for all involved, yourself included.

But what do you do if a lawyer calls?

That’s when it’s time to shut up. Not because you are trying to hide anything or pretend the mistake didn’t happen, but simply to protect yourself and your organization. The lawyer likely isn’t calling to discuss the mistake in general terms. The mere fact that a lawyer has been consulted should be an indication to you that the stakes have risen beyond the apology stage.

At this point, be unfailingly polite, but you don’t have to be overly generous. An attorney may probe for information he can use against you in court. If you tell him on the phone that you never liked that rat-infested restaurant he represents, you can expect that to come up when the court tries to determine whether actual malice played a role in your mistake. Thank the attorney for his call, ask for a call-back number, refer him to your publisher. If pressed for specific information on the matter at hand, tell him that all you have to say about the story is embodied in the story itself. … Read the rest of this entry »

Innocent till proven guilty

In Media law on 30 Oct 2014 at 12:37 pm


We have a time-honored legal tradition in this country and really among free people everywhere: You are innocent until proven guilty. It comes from the Latin, Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat. (The burden of proof is on he who declares, not on he who denies.) It goes back to Roman law.

It’s important not to forget that principle in all aspects of our journalism. And it’s especially easy to assume guilt in headlines, where you may only have a handful of words to convey a complicated set of circumstances.

The headline you see above comes from a Wick paper earlier this month. The story says two local gents were arrested on suspicion of theft, but the headline clearly implies guilt. There has been no trial, yet we have these two guys named, with their photos, under a headline saying they did it.

Many of us have written similar headlines in the rush of deadline. … Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t regret the error!

In Accuracy on 8 May 2014 at 2:11 pm


Here’s a correction you wouldn’t want to write:

“Our September 28, 2013, article ‘How JK’s sob story about her single mother past surprised and confused the church members who cared for her’ suggested that JK Rowling made a knowingly false and inexcusable claim in an article for the Gingerbread charity that people at her church had stigmatised her and cruelly taunted her for being a single mother.

“In fact Mrs Rowling recounted only one incident where a visitor to the church sitgmatised and taunted her on a particular day. We accept that Ms Rowling’s article did not contain any false claims and apologise for any contrary suggestion and have agreed to pay substantial damages to Ms Rowling, which she is donating to charity, and a contribution to her legal costs.”

This is from the Daily Mail of London, circling back to a story it did on something author Rowling wrote for a charity. It’s a little convoluted and a lot weird. It also does something that I wouldn’t recommend doing in this country: the correction repeats the error.

Corrections are a fact of life in the newspaper business. I don’t know much, but I do know you will make a correctable mistake at some point in your career. There is no shame in that, as long as you are diligent before publication and dutiful when you do screw up.

Corrections should do two things and two things only: They should correct the error and tell readers how the error came to be in the newspaper. They should not repeat the error, nor apologize for making it. Why? One reason for corrections is to mitigate any liability should the mistake turn into a court action. Repeating the error (as the Daily Mail did in the above example) could actually increase damages in a U.S. court. Similarly, apologizing, regretting the error and so on may seem the right thing to do, but it can also be considered an admission of guilt in a court of law. … Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s talk about libel

In journalism on 24 Apr 2014 at 4:34 pm


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: … Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s go libel touring!

In Media law on 27 Aug 2010 at 8:22 am

Continuing our weeks’ long tour around the virtual courthouse, we come to the strange outpost known as foreign libel court.

It seems that some international readers have been taking offense at the writings of American authors and then taking their case to court … foreign court. The term “libel tourism” has been around since at least 2005, when a Saudi billionaire sued New York-based author Rachel Ehrenfeld in a British court over her book Funding Evil. Ehrenfeld ultimately lost the case and was ordered to pay £10,000 and legal costs.

The reason writers are being sued elsewhere is because other countries don’t have the same reverence for free speech we enjoy. There is no First Amendment – and none of the so-called Section 230 protections afforded Internet Service Providers here either.

Well, earlier this month the good guys scored a victory. President Barack Obama signed the Speech Act, which forbids federal courts from recognizing foreign libel judgments that don’t jibe with our own First Amendment protections.

This is one of those things that isn’t likely to hit home in Wasilla or Ontario. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to keep abreast of any change in libel law, for obvious reasons.


Who is a public figure?

In Media law on 22 Apr 2010 at 1:58 pm

It’s an important question, first because of its legal consequences, but also because the determination has a bearing on how we treat the people in our community.

By that I mean we are liable to consider the local congresswoman differently than the high school principal, who is himself a different sort of source than the senior citizen who lives down the street. I think it’s reasonable to consider public figures capable of dealing with a good deal of scrutiny.

So who are they? We would all likely agree that the congresswoman is a public figure. Is the school principal? How about a teacher? Heck, how about the parents of a kid who does something terrible?

If you are looking for a bright line, you won’t find it here. These are some of the most vexing judgment calls we are likely to make in the course of our daily work. I’d like to ease your mind a bit by giving you some tips, and also explain why the determination is important legally… Read the rest of this entry »