Newspaper escapes liability over wire service story
MICHIGAN–News organizations are not required to independently verify the accuracy of wire service reports when the articles are received from a reputable newsgathering agency and there is no reason to believe that the information is inaccurate, a Michigan Court of Appeals in Detroit held in late September.
The court affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of a defamation lawsuit against the Detroit Free Press by Virgil Howe, the father of major league baseball pitcher Steve Howe. The suit was based on an article originally published in the San Jose Mercury News in July 1986, which the Free Press obtained through KTN News Wire, an international news wire service owned by Knight-Ridder and the Tribune Company.
In the article, Steve Howe stated that his father’s drinking problems caused the family financial problems. Virgil Howe filed a suit against the Detroit Free Press in February 1987. The paper asserted the “wire service” defense, claiming that it could not be held liable for simply republishing an article obtained from a reputable wire service.
The court ruled that the Free Press reproduced the article, from a reputable news agency, without substantial change. Further, there was no evidence that the newspaper knew that the article contained false information. Therefore, the Free Press had no duty to independently verify the accuracy of the article.
The court held that no local news organization could assume the burden of verifying every news story reported to it by established news gathering agencies, and continue to satisfy the demands of modern society for up-to-the-minute information.
The “wire service” defense is consistent with the custom and practice of the newspaper industry in which reliance on the accuracy of wire service articles is common, the court held. The court also found that such a defense was consistent with Michigan law in negligence cases where a standard of care to which a person must conform to avoid being negligent was that of a reasonable man under like circumstances.
To require the Free Press to independently verify the accuracy of every wire service story, which it had no reason to believe was inaccurate and was received from a reputable news gathering agency, would impose an obligation to conform to a standard of conduct greater than that of a reasonable person under similar circumstances, the court concluded. (Howe v. Detroit Free Press, Inc.; Media Counsel: Herschel Fink, Detroit)