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Citizen Journalism 101: The Truth, The Whole Truth…

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      “Get the facts, or the facts will get you. And, when you get ’em, get ’em right, or they will get you wrong.”

— Dr. Thomas Fuller


      Oftentimes, when someone feels he or she has been mistreated by a journalist, the claim is made that the journalist “defamed,” “slandered,” or “libeled” him or her.

      Defamation comes in many forms, the most common of which that impacts journalism being libel, the communication of a false statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, or governmental body a negative image.

      There is a four-part test to determine whether or not libel has occurred. The first three apply to every case; the fourth applies only to celebrities, government officials, and other “prominent people.”


      The first test, is this: is what was said the truth? If what you report as a journalist is truthful, then no argument of libel or defamation can possibly stand up. The best way to ensure you always have the truth on your side is by triple-checking your facts throughout the reporting process.

      The legal parameters for libel are a little more stringent than simply saying the truth. If the statement is false, it must have been communicated as though it was a fact, and it must be easily proven to be false. If you can’t prove the statement is either true or false, then a libel charge cannot hold up.

      Journalists have what is called “qualified protection” from libel, if they are reporting information based on public meetings, and or documents, for stories that are of public importance. In other words, information published about a politician or government official that is damning or embarrassing isn’t necessarily libelous.

      The public always has an overriding right to know the truth, no matter how harmful it might be to someone’s political career.


      Libel requires that the false statement be communicated to another person via printed product or an electronic broadcast. This requirement of the law also covers Internet news websites, although Internet service providers and website hosts are protected from such lawsuits.

      Blogs, however, delve into another area that has limited protection. Because much of what they report lies in the realm of hyperbole and opinion, they have limited libel protections that regular journalists do not enjoy.

      However, there are efforts under way to correct that difference, created largely because libel laws have not yet caught up with 21st century technology. But, suffice it to say, if you publish something that isn’t true, reporting that it is a fact, and at least one person has access to that information, you’re in danger of a libel lawsuit.

At Fault

      Referring back to the first test, the false information must be proven to be false, not just ambiguously false. But, beyond that, the third test for any libel case is whether or not the journalist did everything in his or her power to ensure the information provided in the story was completely accurate.

      There are cases where “garbage in” results in “garbage out.” In these rare cases, the journalist is provided with bad information, perhaps due to a scrivener’s error in an official document, that causes an erroneous report. In these cases, the journalist has some protection, but it is not complete protection — more on that in a moment.


      In the case of a prominent person, celebrity, or political official, a libel case must also show there was “actual malice” on the part of the journalist. In other words, the journalist must have intended to cause harm to the reputation of the person he or she was writing about when he or she reported a false statement.

      Usually, actual malice is most easily proven in the manner by which the journalist and/or his or her news organization respond to a complaint of libel. Most states require the person who believes he or she was libeled to formally complain to the news organization.

      How these complaints are rectified can vary greatly from state to state, but usually a simple correction of the false information is all that is necessary. This applies even in the “garbage in-garbage out” situations.

      More on that below.

Retractions vs. Corrections

      “I want a retraction!”

      As the editor and publisher of several different newspapers, I’ve heard that phrase more times than I can possibly count. But, thankfully, I have yet to ever go to the extreme of retracting a story — the most serious level of correction a news organization may take.

      Sometimes, a key fact gets lost in the shuffle, or it becomes confused due to bad writing, bad editing, or a combination of both. In these cases, “clarifications” are published to make the information clearer to the reader.

      When a mistake is made in the reporting process, whether it is made by the reporter, or as a result of a garbage-in-garbage-out problem, a “correction” is published. Usually, in the cases of clarifications and corrections, there is a standard location in the newspaper — hopefully a prominent location — for these to appear.

      But, when a particularly egregious error occurs, or when a story has completely missed the mark in terms of accuracy, a retraction becomes appropriate. Keep in mind, this is the “nuclear option” for bad reporting, and rarely ever occurs.

      When it does, something very bad has happened.

Opportunity to Correct

      Most states require someone who has been maligned by bad reporting to file a complaint in writing with the news organization in question. Some states also provide a timeframe in which such complaint must be submitted, as well as a particular method of delivery.

      It’s important to know the rules in your state.

      And, when a complaint is received, most states also require that the news organization be afforded an opportunity to correct the mistake. This can have an impact on the “malice” portion of any libel claim.

      Again, how a correction must be made to be considered adequate to avoid malice charges varies from state to state.

      So, as you can see, making a complaint of libel is quite complicated, and the law assumes no malice on the part of journalists. But, the best way to avoid problems is to check, double-check, and triple-check your facts.

Written by bfranklinjournalism

May 4, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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