How to Avoid Libel
Understanding what constitutes libel isn’t much use if a journalist cannot effectively apply those principles to practice. Ensuring that all published claims are accurate is not enough; a journalist must know how the concept of privilege can be applied to their dealings.
The following tips were offered by Doug-Wood Boyle, who has worked in the field of print and radio journalism, along with the field of public relations. These tips are designed to help journalists avoid libel, but it’s important to note that laws do vary from state to state and therefore what’s deemed libelous in one jurisdiction may be exempted in another locale.
Avoid Libel – Understand the Facts
Misinterpreting the facts on which you report can result in inaccuracies that can constitute libel. Therefore, it’s important to verify the facts with your sources and be sure you have a clear understanding of the facts in a case before you report. And don’t be afraid to ask questions! It’s better to ask questions and get the facts correct than to keep silent and publish an inaccurate piece.
Quote Correctly to Avoid Libel
Misquoting a subject can lead to skewed reports that can be libelous in some cases, so it’s vital that reporters maintain accuracy. Recording interviews is one way to help ensure proper quoting, as the quotes can be verified.
It’s also important for a journalist to ensure that quotes are presented in proper context. The meaning of a statement can vary dramatically depending upon the context, so it’s vital to ensure that a writer presents the quotations in the way that they were intended by the speaker. Presenting a quote in the incorrect context is a form of misquoting.
To avoid libel, writers and journalists must always ask questions if they are uncertain about a statement or fact.
Use Clear Wording to Avoid Libel
Ambiguous, vague or otherwise non-specific wording can result in a misleading and inaccurate report. This inaccurate report may be considered libelous! So for this reason, it’s important to review your article and to ask another person to proofread the piece.
The journalist is already familiar with the information presented in their report, so another person is more apt to spot unclear or ambiguous wording. In cases where potentially libelous statements are made, it’s wise to have another person (who is familiar with the workings of libel) review the report prior to publication. What may seem like a clear statement to the author may appear confusing, vague or misleading to the reader.
Learn What Proceedings are “Official” and What Documents are Public Record
Reporting impartially and correctly on official events and absolves a reporter of liability in many libel cases, as it’s covered under qualified privilege. Therefore, it’s vital that journalists understand what proceedings and documents are considered public record.
Journalists Must Remain Impartial
Strong opinions on an issue will often be reflected in a piece, so it’s important to maintain an unbiased stance when reporting. Be sure to present both sides of a story and include other balancing information.
Personal opinions should be reserved for the Op-Ed page. Ulterior motives and malice on the part of a journalist eliminate privilege.
Verify Submissions for Publication to Avoid Libel
There have been cases where pranksters have submitted marriage announcements for individuals who are involved in a dispute or disagreement. Someone may also submit a letter to the editor under another person’s name in an attempt to harm that individual’s reputation or to cause embarrassment.
Publishing a letter to the editor that’s falsely attributed to a particular individual or publishing a fake marriage announcement leaves a journalist vulnerable to accusations of libel. For these reasons, it’s important to verify each and every submission to a publication by calling and/or emailing the party.