Avoiding Libel and Slander

In one’s journalistic career they must always take steps to make sure what they are writing or saying is factual. The main purpose of news media is to inform people about what is going on in the world and making false statements may just be the opposite of that. It can also be illegal under the right circumstances. Such as when one says or writes false information that is damaging to a person’s reputation. The spoken form is known as slander and the written form as libel and both are covered under the legal term defamation. They should be avoided at all costs. The media does not exist to make baseless accusations or to defame people for personal or petty reasons.

Defamation is defined by the News Manual in three parts. “(a) The reputation of that person is likely to be injured. (b) He is likely to be injured in his profession or trade. (c) Other persons are likely to be induced to shun, avoid, ridicule or despise him.” Any false statements made about a person that could cause one of these effects can be considered either liable or slander. The most straightforward advice to give is to simply be thorough with fact checking. Follow up on sources to make sure they don’t bear any sort of grudge against the person that is being reported on and are in a position to make informed comments. A false and damaging quote from an interview could hurt both the subject’s and the publisher’s reputation, as well as your own. Not only that, but legal action could very well be taken if it appears that the article has a strong bias against the subject and is trying to defame them. Always make sure there is proof to any claims made to back them up.

It is also for the best if a journalist avoids covering news stories that cause an intense personal reaction due to bias or personal belief. If a journalist feels that the content of an article is something they feel strong leanings towards, they should likely pass it off to someone else. Note that this only covers news articles, not opinion pieces. Opinion pieces are specifically about the point of view so some bias (or even a strong bias) is expected. However, they are still subject to defamation laws. False, damaging statements made against individuals or specific organizations will not fly in any type of printed or spoken journalism. Proof is absolutely everything even when spouting opinion.

If a potentially damaging statement must be made, either be very specific with backed up information or be incredibly general. Dancing with Lawyers puts it well; “Generally, a statement made about an undefinable group of people or organizations cannot be defamation. Take, “Real estate agents are crooks.” It’s defamatory enough, but there is no identifiable victim. Most of the agents at Smith Real Estate Company are crooks” is getting dicier, but it is still hard to define the victim. Smith Real Estate Company is a crooked company.” Wham! You have a victim: Smith Real Estate Company.” Without information or observation that suggests they actually ARE stealing money from their customers, narrowing it down to one person or company can and will be considered slander.

Journalists have a responsibility to be accurate with their reporting as much as they possibly can. Libel and slander are never appropriate for a work that is going to be published or a public broadcast. News needs to stay about the facts. Wild baseless accusations are for tabloids.








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