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Media libel suits continue to drop, awards on the rise

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    News Media Update         NEW YORK         Libel    

Media libel suits continue to drop, awards on the rise

  • An annual report by the Media Law Resource Center finds that news organizations won nearly 60 percent of their libel suits last year, while the yearly total of libel suits continued to decline.

March 10, 2004 — News organizations are being sued for libel less frequently, and winning more often, according to the Media Law Resource Center’s annual Report on Trials and Damages.

According to the report, published in February, 14 libel cases against media defendants went to trial in 2003, with the media winning eight. At 57.1 percent, the rate of victory was the third-highest since the Media Law Resource Center, located in New York City, began surveying libel cases in 1980. Media defendants had their best year in 2002, winning five of six cases.

Half of the 14 media libel cases in 2003 were due to television broadcasts, five due to newspaper articles, and one each due to a radio broadcast and Internet posting. The Internet libel case — a Web site operated by the Oklahoman and KWTV published an outdated address of a sex offender (Stewart v. Oklahoma Publishing Co.) — was a loss. The radio broadcast case — involving conservative radio host G. Gordon Liddy and an electronics installer (Sound Environments v. Liddy) — was a victory for the media.

The amount of libel cases going to trial are decreasing each decade, according to the report, from an average of 24 throughout the 1980s, to 23 in the 1990s, and 12.5 since 2000.

In the 1980s, media defendants won only 35.6 percent of all libel cases, but that average increased to 42.2 percent in the 1990s. The media is enjoying a 54 percent rate of victory this decade.

However, damages awarded in libel cases have remained steady, in constant dollars, increasing with the tide of inflation. From 2000 to 2003, the average award was $3.4 million. In the 1990s, it was $2.6 million, and $1.5 million in the 1980s.

Twenty five percent of all damages awarded since 1980 were reversed, with only 35 percent fully paid, the report said.

Although news organizations have fared increasingly well in recent years, the cases continue to be threatening to the media, MLRC Executive Director Sandra Baron said.

“While most of these excessive trial awards are reduced on appeal, the expense of litigating can be daunting,” she said. “The danger is that excessive damage awards, and the cost of litigating and appealing them, may give editors and publishers pause when covering controversial people and topics.”

Court decisions have varied widely by state over the years. For states in which a minimum of three media libel trials occurred, news organizations won the most cases in Oregon and Connecticut, victorious 83 percent of the time. Kansas was the most media-unfriendly state, with no wins for news organizations in three libel trials. In Arkansas and West Virginia, the media has lost five out of six cases, and four out of five, respectively.


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© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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