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Experts share prepublication tips to avoid lawsuits

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The ultimate self-imposed safety net for journalists is a proper examination of an article before actually publishing it. A thorough…

Here are some tips for reporters who don’t have access to legal experts for a prepublication review process.

Erik Wemple, blogger for The Washington Post:

Wemple tells reporters to look for legal issues in their stories from different perspectives, and not only through the main character or primary source.

“The problem is that oftentimes reporters are only thinking of one person. Let’s say they’re writing a profile, and he’s a public figure. And the reporter says that nothing we’ve said about this person cannot be substantiated. What they’re often missing is the peripheral people involved. A lawyer sees the full scope of exposure that a story may have.”

Dave Heller, Media Law Resource Center staff attorney:

Heller asks journalists to be mindful of accuracy when reporting information sourced from law enforcement. When editing, journalists must understand how to balance the pressure of instantaneous news and faithful reporting.

“If you want to focus on how to report on the law enforcement and fast-moving criminal investigations . . . make sure that what you report is accurate. But there will be times when you accurately report information from the police that turns out to be incorrect. That’s an editorial judgement about waiting versus informing the public.”

Jeffrey Pyle, partner and First Amendment lawyer at Boston-based firm Prince Lobel Tye LLP:

Pyle says disclaimers are a good idea, but only when they are a prominent part of your piece. The tricky part is incorporating it well.

“If you’re going to include cautionary language, you should put it in the headline. But that’s not how many newspapers work, and it would be very cumbersome to have disclaimers in every headline and every story.”

Some anxiety is always healthy too.

“One has to think defensively. In fact, one has to have almost a morbid sense of fear about what can happen. You have to exaggerate in your own mind the potential threats. . . . Put oneself in the mind of a dispassionate judge who isn’t potentially a fan of the press, and think about what kind of statements might really rub that judge the wrong way. And then consider, is there a way to make clear to a reasonable reader exactly what it is you’re saying? And don’t do so in fine print.”