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Avoiding libel in satire

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From the Fall 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 21.

From the Fall 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 21.

Satire, caricature and parody are forms of art that rely on blurring the line between truth and outrageousness. Below are suggestions &#151 some taken from opinions in New Times v. Isaacks, decided in September by the Texas Supreme Court, and the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell &#151 of things to include to help make it unlikely that a reasonable person would believe the story to be actually true. The context of the entire story is important, so no single suggestion is guaranteed to protect from liability. It is also not necessary to include all of the suggestions below.

&#149 Use of an irreverent tone will signal that the story is not straight news.

&#149 Consider the context of the publication the story will run in, including whether the publication has a history of satire or parody. The Wall Street Journal should be more careful than Mad Magazine.

&#149 Consider the location in the publication. Is it in the news section, the opinion page or an advertisement?

&#149 Use of an unorthodox headline will alert readers from the beginning that the story is not straight news.

&#149 Unbelievable or outrageous items in the story, experts or groups with names that are ridiculous or have a silly acronym, and quotes that are unbelievable, illogical or over-the-top may all signal that a story is not stating actual facts.

&#149 Instead of using the names of actual people, consider using fictitious names that are close to or suggest real people.

&#149 In the story, consider referring to the actual incident you are parodying. Publishing the parody soon after the actual incident while it is still in the public’s mind provides a clue that the story is commenting on the actual event.

&#149 Use of a disclaimer may help, but will not necessarily avoid liability, especially if in small print at the end of an otherwise believable story.

&#151 GP