Journalist's Guide

The Law of Libel and Invasion of Privacy In reporting the news, journalists should strive for one goal above and beyond all others and that is accuracy. Reporting the facts accurately does not insulate journalists from facing the typically unpleasant experience of being sued. Indeed, libel and invasion of privacy lawsuits often are brought not because a newspaper, television or radio station or online news source misstated the facts, but because the subjects of those reports feel they were not treated fairly. The law does not purport to serve as a useful guide on fairness and some may say that’s better left to the ethics experts. But, the law does provide an extensive guide to determine whether you can be held liable for reporting false statements of fact or invading someone’s privacy. This brief synopsis describes the fundamental elements of a libel or invasion of privacy lawsuit, the defense to such claims, and some practical suggestions to avoid trouble altogether. Elements of Libel What is libel? What is slander? Is there a difference? Generally speaking, libel is based on the printed word, slander on the spoken word. In Maryland, libel and slander are treated the same. So no matter what medium you use to publish your story, the law is the same. To simplify matters, only the term libel will be used. So, what is libel? The general definition of libel is a false statement of fact about another that tends to harm his reputation in the eyes of the community. An inquiry into any libel lawsuit starts with the “elements” a plaintiff must prove to a judge or jury to establish a legal claim for libel. Those elements are as follows: Publication : A plaintiff must show a statement was “published” to a third person. In the media context, this typically is easy to prove, because the plaintiff has a copy of an online article or a TV or radio broadcast that shows others have read, watched or heard what was being said about them. But publication is not limited to just these forms of expression. For instance, a letter you send to a third person, a scribbled note to a news source, even verbal statements or questions you ask a source over a telephone can all constitute “publication” even though the statements were not disseminated to a wide audience. False Statement of Fact . The readers or viewers of the publication, or radio or TV station must reasonably believe the statement made by one person about another person falsely stated a fact as opposed to expressing an opinion about the second person. A more detailed explanation of the fact/opinion dichotomy is described later. Of and Concerning Another . The statement must reasonably be read or viewed as pertaining to a specific individual or company, not an observation about an unidentifiable person or large group of individuals. In other words, your statement must reasonably identify another person or company, though it is not necessary you actually identify them by name. Defamatory Meaning . The statement must diminish an individual’s (or company’s) reputation in the community, for example, by exposing that individual (or company) to public scorn, ridicule,


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