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In writing the news, a reporter handles a valuable and fragile possession, a person's reputation. In reviewing your writing, make sure you have not injured someone's reputation unnecessarily. Have you libeled them? Here are some things to look for:

1. First a definition: Libel is the injury to reputation that occurs when a false, published report charges criminal conduct, immorality or incompetence in one's business, profession or office.

2. The key word in that definition is "false." Truth is the best defense against libel, but knowing it and proving it are two things. Off-the-record sources may refuse to testify for you in court. Be certain you can prove what you publish.

3. You will not be guilty of libel if your false report is privileged. It can be privileged if it was a full, fair and accurate report from a judicial, legislative or other public proceeding or from a public record, and if it was done without malice.

4. If you repeat a libelous statement, you can be held liable,
even though it is attributed. Disclaimers such as "it is alleged"
or "it is reported" won't save you.

5. Reporters enjoy great protection when they cover public officials. The Supreme Court has defined these public officials as those "who have substantial responsibility for, or control over, the conduct of public affairs."

6. To successfully recover damages for a defamatory falsehood, a public official must prove "actual malice." In other words, the reporter knew the facts were false, or had a reckless disregard of whether the facts were false—he or she did not check their accuracy using normal reporting practices.

7. The same standards apply to public figures. These are prominent private citizens, some celebrities or those who have thrust themselves into a public controversy.

8. However, private citizens enjoy a different standard than public officials or public figures. They must prove only negligence or carelessness to successfully sue for libel.

9. At least 90 percent of all libel suits arise from run-of-the-mill stories. A Harvard study concluded: "The gee-whiz, slam-bang stories usually aren't the ones that generate libel, but innocent appearing, potentially treacherous minor yarns from police court, traffic cases, from routine meetings and from business reports."

10. Libel usually results from carelessness, exaggerated writing, statements of officials made outside privileged situations, inadequate verification or failure by the reporter to talk with the subject of the defamation.

Libel usually results from:
  • Carelessness
  • Exaggerated writing
  • Inadequate verification
  • Failure to talk with the subject
  • Rewriting
    Getting it right—part 1
    Getting it right—part 2


    A Web site created by Jim Hall for beginning reporters, those studying the craft and their teachers.