‘Sloppy reporting’ does not constitute ‘actual malice’
SOUTH CAROLINA–The South Carolina Supreme Court in late November ruled 4-1 to reverse a $675,000 libel judgment awarded to state Sen. Harvey Peeler (R-York County), holding that Peeler had failed to prove that WSPA-TV in Spartanburg acted with actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — in reporting a story that included allegations of voting fraud.
The high court held that there was no clear and convincing evidence to support a finding of actual malice. The court held that at best, the plaintiff showed WSPA may have practiced “sloppy journalism,” which does not constitute actual malice.
WSPA broadcast two news stories on August 29 and September 1, 1988, about the forgery of names on a petition to place challenger J.R. Stroupe’s name on the ballot for the state senate. In the broadcasts, reporter Allan Ray Tedder interviewed Stroupe and others who claimed that Peeler or his supporters were responsible for the forgeries.
Peeler filed a libel suit against WSPA, and a jury awarded him $50,000 in actual damages and $625,000 in punitive damages. Stroupe later pled guilty to the forgery.
The court ruled that there was no evidence that Tedder deliberately misrepresented interviews about the issue. Further, the court held that WSPA’s erasure of the tape containing the newscasts was a routine practice and not evidence of actual malice.
The court noted that actual malice is a subjective standard that tests a publisher’s good faith belief in the truth of his statements. A publisher must have serious doubts about the truth of a story, the court held. Further, to establish recklessness, there must be an extreme departure from the investigation and reporting standards ordinarily used by responsible publishers.
The dissenting judge argued that WSPA’s broadcasts were an extreme departure from standards and constituted evidence of actual malice. He stated that by misquoting Stroupe, and “splicing and editing” other interviews, WSPA deliberately attempted to convey a false impression that people were questioning Peeler’s involvement in the forgeries. (Peeler v. Spartan Radiocasting, Inc.; Media Counsel: William Gunn; Spartanburg)