Libel law provides protection against defamation of a person's reputation.
If the old rhyme claiming that sticks and stones can break bones but words can never hurt were true, there would be no libel laws. Words do hurt people. Defamation law is designed to redress the problem when a reputation is ruined or when people are shunned or ridiculed because of false information that is presented about them. When the defamatory statements are spoken to another individual or individuals, the defamation is called slander. When the defamatory statements are printed, the defamation is called libel. However, broadcast speech is considered to be libel because the communication often comes from a written script, and even if not, it is delivered to a large audience simultaneously.
The first important concept to remember about libel law is that libel laws are state laws and vary from state to state. Therefore, the discussion of libel here is general, and reporters should familiarize themselves with the particular statutes of the state in which they work. Another fundamental of libel is that the law is designed to protect people from false information that defames them. For this reason, the general guideline is that truth is an absolute defense against libel charges. Avoiding libel suits is really quite simple. Every single word in a story must be true, and the reporter should know before the story goes on the air that every word could be proven if necessary.
The plan to present only the truth in a news story sounds simple, but the practice is not so easy. Good reporters work carefully to present the facts, but, like all human beings, they make mistakes. The reporter may misread something or write something down incorrectly, or quote a trustworthy source who made a mistake. Time constraints may prevent checking information as thoroughly as desired, or the reporter may ignore a small doubt that turns out to be a serious oversight. Beginning reporters may simply lack the experience to recognize problems.
Because it is so easy to make mistakes and because the justice system recognizes the problems of working under tight deadlines, the reporter and station do not, in fact, have to prove that every single word in a story is true when they are taken to court. On the contrary, the person bringing the libel suit has to prove that the information is false. Despite the fact that the law is generally on the side of the media, it is still a good practice to make certain that every word of every story is correct and that every picture is an accurate representation.
In a general sense, the person who claims defamation and brings suit—the plaintiff—will have five things to prove: defamation, publication, identification and fault and, as discussed above, falsehood. First, was there defamation that caused injury? Was there damage to the reputation because of publicized false information? Did the story cause the person to suffer, to be shunned or ridiculed, to lose friends or business? In many cases, there's no question. If a story refers to someone as a thief, murderer, pimp or rapist, these words are clearly defamatory. Without some factual basis for the claim, the media would surely be held liable, or legally responsible, for the libel. (Notice the difference in these two words: liable refers to responsibility and libel refers to defamation.) Other references may or may not be libelous, depending on the context in which they are made. In any case, the person suing will have to show that defamation resulted from the story.
Second, the plaintiff will have to prove that the story was published—printed or broadcast. As mentioned previously, slander is considered to have occurred if a false, defamatory statement is made by one individual to another individual about a third person. In broadcast libel charges, it's not hard to prove whether or not something was published. A script may be on file containing the defamatory words, or people will be able to verify that they heard it.
The plaintiff must prove that he or she was identified in the story. When someone is identified in a story, it means that viewers understand who the information is about. If Mayor Juliana Wilson claims to have been defamed in a story that falsely accused her of using city money to pave her driveway, there won't be much question about the identification. The story may not even have included her name. If it said "the mayor," there's only one in a particular city, and she has been identified. In contrast, if John Smith was arrested last night and charged with rape, any town would have several John Smiths who could possibly claim to have been libeled. Is other information included in the story that specifies which John Smith was arrested?
The plaintiff will have to prove fault, a level of error on the part of the broadcaster. (Please note that the lawsuit will be filed against the station, but the reporter will probably also be named in the suit, and the reporter's actions will be under examination on the witness stand.) The court will consider whether the reporter was working under deadline and whether the mistake was a reasonable one Was a minor mistake included in a story that was substantially true? And how true is true? If an observer says a customer was "angry" and "yelling obscenities" before breaking something and running out,how can we judge the truth of the observation? When does frustration or irritation become anger, and which words are obscene? Was there reason for the reporter to believe the information was accurate? Did the reporter attempt to verify the story? Was the source a reputable source of information, and why did the reporter think so? Did the reporter question the accuracy of the information or even doubt the accuracy? Is it possible that the reporter even knew the information was false? Maybe the falsity was a simple mistake, like writing John C. Smith instead of John D. Smith.
Finally, remember that the plaintiff must prove that the information was false. Most often, the falsehood will have to be a provably false statement of fact. Statements of pure opinion that cannot be proved are protected from libel judgment.
The level of fault that public people must show in libel cases is much harder to prove than the simpler requirements for private people. Let's look at the differences in how the courts have defined public and private persons, as well as the legal protection for reporters who cover them.