The good, the bad and the legally wrong. What precautions do journalists need to consider when reporting?
Whether a writer for The Guardian, a well-loved blog, or a reporter at a local news station, all journalists face and are governed by the same laws and ethics. The act of “doing whatever it takes” to get a story published can be an indicator of a good journalist, but only to a certain extent. Within journalism there is a defined line that cannot be crossed when regarding legalities. One of the common cases of legal challenges that journalists face is defamation.
What is defamation?
The Defamation Act (2013) states “a statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.” Within his Defamation Defined, Martin (1966 p4) defines the term as “an attack on the reputation of another, and includes the ideas of calumny and aspersion by lying, and the injury to another’s reputation by such means.” Essentially, when untrue statements are published, they damage the subject’s reputation and can consequently effect public opinions.
Martin (1966 p2) continues to state that “the law of defamation is divided into two distinct actions, libel and slander.”
Libel relates to a defamatory publication which is ‘permanent’. This includes written material (books, newspaper and magazine articles), as well as allegations appearing on TV and radio.
Slander relates to more ‘transient’ publications, principally spoken words or physical gestures. According to Dowd (1953 p946), “the court is unfortunate in that it tends to confuse the law of slander and by-passes the main issue in the case without discussion.” As slander is more ‘transient’, it can be harder to prove in court.
Example of libel (2007):
English actress, Kiera Knightley sued The Daily Mail, after they published an article and accompanying photo of the 22-year-old on a beach. With remarks about the actresses weight, the same article reported the death of a young young girl who died of anorexia, and insinuated a link between the two. The story quoted, “if pictures like this one of Kiera carried a health warning, my darling daughter might have lived.” Knightley issued libel proceedings against The Daily Mail, over suggestions that she ‘lied’ about having an eating disorder. Winning her libel claim, Knightley accepted £3,000 High Court libel damages over the newspaper article, of which she donated to the eating disorder charity Beat.
After Knightley won her defamation claim The Daily Mail issued out an apology, which was published after the initial article featured a picture of The Pirates of the Caribbean star in a bikini, referring to her slim appearance. The concluding statement to this apology read: “the defendant accepts that the claimant does not bear responsibility to Sophie’s death, does not have an eating disorder, and has not mislead the public.”
Defences against libel: a number of ways in which defamatory publications may be defended.
- Based on fact
- Made in good faith
- Published without malice
How to avoid defamation?
The most important point is to make sure that what you are printing or writing is true. Do not make claims or accusations that you cannot prove. If you write something that cannot be substantiated the credibility of your site, organisation or cause may be questioned. In addition, this will land you with an expensive lawsuit which there is no legal aid for libel cases. So, before you publish something, make sure you re-read your article and fact-check throughout in order to avoid yourself running into trouble.
Using opinions rather than assuming facts can be crucial to the justification of your article. Using opinion phrases instead of statements can ensure you that your work won’t be held as defamation, as it holds an opinionative aspect rather than a factual.
Try using my head start to defamation within journalism in your own publications. Remember: the burden of proof lies within the author!