Journalist's Guide

There are three categories of plaintiffs: public officials , public figures and private figures. Both public officials and public figures must prove a media defendant published a false statement of fact with actual malice , that is, with knowledge a statement was false or with reckless disregard as to the statement’s truth or falsity. This can be a difficult standard for a plaintiff to meet. Unfortunately, the term “actual malice” is confusing and often misunderstood. The term does not mean a reporter acted against a news subject with spite or ill will. Rather, in the land of libel law, the term “actual malice” means a publisher or broadcaster entertained serious doubts as to a statement’s truth or falsity, or consciously disregarded the truth, for instance, by ignoring a reliable source’s statement that what was about to be published was false. Private individuals, on the other hand, merely have to prove ‘negligence,” that is, proving the media failed to exercise ordinary care expected of competent journalists prior to publishing or broadcasting a false and defamatory statement about the individual. This is a lower, much easier standard for a plaintiff to meet than the “actual malice” required of public officials and public figures. It’s hard to say how much “negligence” is too much. This decision typically is made on a case-by-case basis by a jury. Public officials include all of your elected officials, from the governor to the local county supervisor, but it extends beyond that. City managers, judges, school superintendents and other high level government workers typically will be considered public officials for the purposes of libel action, provided the article or broadcast report relates in some way to their official duties. Other government officials – such as public high school teachers and mid-level bureaucrats – may similarly be treated as public officials if the stories relate to their official duties. But, low- level government workers, in most cases, will be considered private individuals for libel purposes. Public figures – as opposed to public officials – are a separate category that is further broken up into two parts. First are “general purpose” public figures. They are famous people who are constantly in the public eye, such as Chris Rock, any of the Kardashians, Kanye West, and Taylor Swift, and Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank. The more common public figure in libel cases is the “limited purpose” public figure, an individual who otherwise may be fairly private – or unknown to the community at large – except for the limited purpose of getting deeply involved in some type of community controversy that becomes worthy of media attention. If, for instance, the county council is considering a proposal to build a new highway extension through a neighborhood and one Patti Peters leads the opposition among local activists, then Ms. Peters probably would be considered a limited purpose public figure in a lawsuit challenging the accuracy of statements made about her in a newspaper account about the highway controversy. Ms. Peters, however, would not be a public figure regarding a story that pertains to her private life; only when the news account concerns the particular controversy in question would Ms. Peters be considered a public figure. So, who is “public” and who is “private”?


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