Are news reporters and their statements protected against libel lawsuits?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jun 19, 2018

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In most situations, responsible news reporters are protected from liability for libel or slander claims. There are several defenses that a news reporter generally has when s/he is sued for libel or slander, including truth, opinion, neutrality, and more.

Libel and Its Defenses

Libel occurs when a false and negative statement about another is made in a public setting, harming that person and exposing him to negative consequences. Even intangible negative consequences such as a lowering in societal status or reputation can be among the harms suffered. However, reporters make statements that could be considered “libelous” all the time…what protects these statements is a number of principles that are invoked in any kind of responsible reporting, the first of which is truth. Plaintiffs first have to prove that a libelous statement was false in order to recover in court.

After proving falsity, plaintiffs must prove that they were harmed by the false statement, and then that the statement was made without sufficient research into the statement’s truthfulness, and typically done with the intention of causing harm. Though there are exceptions to these requirements, it is generally difficult for someone whose reputation has been harmed (due to a reporter’s libelous statement) to meet this “burden of proof” in the courts.

News Media Responsibility

Damages can sometimes be recovered if a newspaper’s story had inaccuracies which hurt the reputation of a person or business. A newspaper or other media outlet is responsible for the stories it publishes. Good journalists usually attribute controversial statements to the person who made them. For example, it’s not that “Smith murdered his wife,” but rather, “Smith allegedly murdered his wife,” or more probably, “the police allege that Smith murdered his wife.” Any statement in which it is clear that someone [else] has alleged the otherwise-libelous or otherwise-slanderous statement is more likely to be legally protected.

However, even quotes with correct attributions can contribute to a libel action if the story taken as a whole is deemed defamatory. Note that defamation arises only when false statements of fact are made that harm the reputation of another. A reviewer could write that your restaurant serves terrible lasagna – but as long as the “opinion” does not constitute a legal assertion of fact, there will be no basis for a claim.

Getting Help with a Defamation Claim

If you believe you may have a valid defamation claim, contact a libel and slander attorney in your area.

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