Advice for avoiding libel suits

Advice for avoiding libel suits

  • Check sources thoroughly. Get independent corroboration whenever possible. A source could have a vendetta against the subject and willfully or unintentionally misrepresent the facts for his or her own purposes. Confidential sources, such as government employees, may disappear or recant in the face of a lawsuit. Don’t rely on someone else to be accurate.
  • Do not let your opinion about whether someone is a public figure or official color your decision to verify the accuracy of a story. Juries do not respond favorably to reporters who fail to confront their subjects with defamatory information and provide them with an opportunity to comment.
  • If you cover the police or courthouse beat, make certain you understand criminal and civil procedure and terminology. Be especially careful to restate accurately any information obtained about arrests, investigations and judicial proceedings.
  • Be cautious when editing. Make sure the story does not convey the wrong information because of a hasty rewrite.
  • Watch for headlines and cutlines that might be defamatory even though the text explains the story.
  • Make sure news promos or teasers used to stir audience interest are not misleading or defamatory.
  • Do not use generic video footage or file photos when reporting on an activity that might be considered questionable.
  • Just because someone else said it does not mean that a news organization cannot be sued for republishing it. This includes letters to the editor. Check out any factual allegations contained in them as carefully as you would statements in a news story.
  • Be sensitive about using words that connote dishonest behavior, immorality or other undesirable traits, whether in your published story or in comments in your notes. Remember that a judge may order a news organization to produce reporters’ notes, drafts and internal memoranda at a libel trial.
  • If contacted by someone threatening a libel suit, be polite, but do not admit error or fault. Talk the case over with your editor, supervisor or attorney immediately, and follow procedures established by your news organization. You can also contact the Reporters Committee for more assistance, particularly if you are an independent journalist.