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Media did not libel hero in Olympics bombing coverage

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  1. Libel and Privacy
Reporters at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did not libel a security guard, who was at first hailed as a hero after…

Reporters at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did not libel a security guard, who was at first hailed as a hero after the 1996 bombing at Centennial Olympic Park, when they reported authorities were investigating him as a suspect in the bombing, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled this month.

Survivors of Richard Jewell, who died in 2007, sought damages from the newspaper and several reporters, alleging Jewell’s reputation was damaged when he was identified in the media as a suspect in the Atlanta bombing that resulted in two deaths and injured about 100. Jewell was later cleared, and Eric Robert Rudolph is now serving a life sentence after he admitted to planting the bomb.

The Court of Appeals upheld on July 13 the trial court’s ruling that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution accurately reported that officials were investigating Jewell as a key suspect in the bombing and made it clear to readers that officials were still in the preliminary stages of an ongoing investigation.

While the appellate court ruled the articles were substantially true, it expressed sympathy for Jewell, who was at first deemed a hero after he alerted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to an unattended knapsack under a park bench that contained the explosive. His “bravery” and “quick-thinking” resulted in evacuating the stadium and saving countless lives, the court said.

“Here is a man whose valor and quick-thinking catapulted him from obscurity to beloved national hero almost instantaneously, who then saw those universal accolades vanish in the blink of an eye,” Judge Stephen Dillard said. “All of the sudden Jewell was the mistaken villain, forced to endure unfathomable media and law-enforcement scrutiny, as well as rampant media speculation that he may have committed the very crime he had so bravely attempted to thwart.”

Jewell gave several interviews to national media outlets after the incident and was deemed a hero. However, days later, media attention toward him changed when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a story identifying Jewell as the focus of a federal investigation.

Shortly after Jewell notified authorities of the knapsack, someone placed an anonymous 911 call notifying the park of the bomb and warning “you have 30 minutes.” The newspaper reported officials were checking to see if Jewell's voice matched the caller's and believed he may have planted the bomb so he could be a hero afterward.

That coverage continued, with articles referring to him as “the man who investigators believe may have planted the pipe bomb.” None of the stories identified their law-enforcement sources.

The Department of Justice cleared Jewell in October 1996, and in January 1997, Jewell filed a libel complaint against the newspaper and reporters. Jewell consistently argued he was entitled to know the identities of the reporters’ anonymous sources, while the newspaper maintained the information was privileged.

Initially, the trial court approved Jewell’s motion to compel the identities of the reporters’ sources, but deemed Jewell a limited-purpose public figure who needed to prove the statements were published with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. The trial court decided not to hold the paper in contempt of court for reporters' refusal to disclose confidential sources while an appeal of the order was pending.

At that time, the appellate court upheld the ruling that Jewell is a limited-purpose public figure, but introduced a balancing test requiring the trial court to weigh Jewell’s need for the identities of the sources against the media’s interest in protecting them. The trial court then denied Jewell's motion to compel and granted summary judgment to the media defendants because “the challenged statements were either substantially true and/or the identities of the confidential sources were unnecessary to establish whether the statements were defamatory.”

Jewell appealed again. He took issue with three articles identifying him as a suspect and one opinion piece that compared him to a convicted serial child killer.

Limited-purpose public figures need to prove not only that the statements are false and defamatory, but that media defendants published them with actual malice. In order to meet this hefty burden, Jewell argued he needed to know the identities of the reporters' confidential sources.

However, the appellate court ruled the statements are substantially true and, therefore, would not require the disclosure of sources' names. It upheld the trial court's denial of Jewell's motion to compel and granting of summary judgment to the media defendants.

Viewed in their entirety, the articles could not be seen as defamatory, the appellate court held in its most recent opinion. The journalists reported facts, as investigators indeed believed Jewell was a suspect and were actively pursuing the scenario. In addition, the articles make it clear the criminal investigation was preliminary and ongoing, that Jewell had not been charged and even quoted others who questioned the likelihood that Jewell was involved.

“A reasonable reader would have understood the information to be preliminary in nature and published during the very early stages of an ongoing investigation," Dillard said.

The attorney for Jewell’s survivors told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the estate plans to appeal the recent decision.

However, Peter Canfield, an Atlanta media lawyer who represents the publication and its reporters, said in the newspaper article that an appeal won't change the end result.

“Whenever a court has looked at the merits of this case, it has determined that the newspaper accurately reported on an evolving investigation,” Canfield said.