According to the Reporter’s Committee, “[libel] occurs when a false and defamatory statement about an identifiable person [or organization] is published to a third party, causing injury to the subject’s reputation.” Merill Perlman of the Columbia Journalism Review explains that the primary difference between libel and slander is that generally libel is printed defamation and slander is spoken defamation (in the world of journalism, spoken is also “printed” in that it is something transcribed). Both are legal terms, however, so using them without a legal accusation is unwise—they’re not terms to be thrown about (Columbia Journalism Review). When a writer is sued over something he’s written, he faces six different legal components present in all libel cases: the work’s “defamatory nature, how it was published, the truth or falsity of the claims, whether it is ‘of and concerning’ an individual, reputational harm caused and the degree of fault” (Reporter’s Committee). Clearly, libel and slander face serious consequences and must be avoided at all costs.
The first step to preventing these defamations from occurring is obviously to be sure one’s facts are correct right up front. Claims or accusations that cannot be proven should not be printed. Even if a writer believes he has proof, he should still be careful, as proving claims in court can be quite challenging. In addition, the writer will have to prove his claim is right, as opposed to the accused proving it’s wrong. Also, a writer should refrain from exaggerating in his claims, writing possible innuendos, and offering improvable conclusions. A writer must be wary when writing about past events—suggesting in any way that someone is still guilty of a preceding fault, for example, may bring about a libel. Publishing quotes that are defamatory places the writer in just as dangerous a position as the speaker. Rumors ought never be repeated in print, unless one can prove their legitimacy. Even when contradicting a rumor, a writer should keep from repeating it; adding “‘allegedly’ is not enough to get you out of libel difficulties” (BBC).
The Reporter’s Committee offers further advice. They suggest checking one’s sources thoroughly, being sure one understands the terminology and/or procedures involved with one’s subject, ensuring that “news promos or teasers used to stir audience” do not make defamatory suggestions, and withholding one’s personal opinion as a writer.
According to BBC (in Britain libel laws are quite similar to those in the U.S.) a writer is libeled if his publication exposes individuals or organizations to “hatred, ridicule or contempt,” if it “[causes] them to be shunned or avoided,” or if it “[discredits] them in their trade, business or profession.” Knowing this, again heed the fact that the accuser must prove his information; the accused does not need to prove that the information is false. If threatened with a libel suit, the Reporter’s Committee recommends that a writer be polite, but not immediately admit to a fault.
“Talk the case over with your editor, supervisor or attorney immediately, and follow procedures established by your news organization.”
Journalists also need to have adequate material should they be falsely accused of libel or slander. Socialbrite, an online social media consulting organization, states that a journalist’s notes are vastly important because even sources may sue journalists for putting words in their mouths. In a journalist’s notes, he must include quotation marks if he is not recording the conversation. He has to have means to protect himself.
In other words, a writer must do his very, very best to avoid libeling and slandering, but if he should be suspected or even sued, he must proceed cautiously.
Reporter’s Committee: “Libel”
Article by Merrill Perlman, Columbia Journalism Review
Reporter’s Committee: “Advice for avoiding libel suits”