Law And The Journalist

By R. Rajagopal

Every journalist who handles news should necessarily know the laws governing the publication of newspapers. It can be said that the newsman's duty is to keep the paper out of court. Editors always advise journalists working for them to carefully check the facts before sending the stories for publication. After all, the lawyer does not sit at the copy desk to review all material going into the paper. He can only be consulted if there is a reason to fear the consequences of a publication.

This makes all newsmen to be some sort of expert on libel and other legal matters. He need not be an authority on the law of torts (civil wrong); it will not be his duty to defend the newspaper against a suit if and when one is brought. It is necessary that every piece of copy is tested for potential danger.

A journalist need not be equipped to take final judgements on the basis of his knowledge of his paper's policy, the law and everything else that enters in the decision. These judgements will be made at higher levels, perhaps in the office of the publisher, who holds the ultimate responsibility, legal and otherwise, for what the paper presents. But the publisher cannot make such decisions unless he is presented with them. The publisher can't review every story that goes into print. The way the editor functions on behalf of his paper in legal matters is to exercise his power to sense danger, his knowledge of law to test whether the danger is real, and, if so, his good sense in calling the attention of superiors for their final decision.

Publishers and broadcasters face risks far greater than those in other professions. More than a century ago a London editor John T. Delane of the Times said, "The Press lives by disclosures." All disclosures are hazardous. If errors occur, they are public and many subject the error maker to liability.

Few libels are deliberate. Nearly all result from erroneous reporting, misunderstanding of the law or careless editing.

Anything in a newspaper is libellous if it is false and if it damages a living person's reputation or has an adverse effect on his means of earning a living. A story is defamatory if it accuses a living person of a crime or immorality or imputes a crime or immorality to him; if it states or insinuates that a person is insane or has a loathsome or contagious disease; if it tends in any way to subject the victim to public hatred, contempt or ridicule or causes others to shun him or refuse to do business with him.

Wrong assumptions sometimes can make a statement defamatory. A man who sets fire to a dwelling is not necessarily an arsonist. A man who kills another is not necessarily a murderer.

A statement may cause a reader pain and anguish, but mere vituperation does not make a libel; it must be substantial. It is not enough that the statement may disturb him personally. It must damage him in the estimation of his community or of those whom he does business with.

Only the man libelled has a cause for action. His relatives, even though they may have suffered because of the false and defamatory statements, have no recourse to libel.

If anyone has been libelled, he may ask the publication to print a correction. This could satisfy him because it tends to set the record straight. A correction provides evidence of lack of malice.

DEFENCES

What are the defences available to a journalist in a defamation case?

The first and foremost defence is TRUTH. Truth is an absolute defence in libel. When truth is offered in evidence, it must be substantial, not hearsay or secondary proof. Mere repetition of what someone said is not admissible evidence of truth. The truth must be as broad and complete as the publication upon which the charge was made.

If the defending publisher relies on a document as evidence to show truth, he must be sure the document can be produced at the trial and be admitted in evidence. If he relies on a witness to give testimony as to truth, he must be assured the witness is qualified to testify.

The second defence is PRIVILEGE. Reports of official, judicial, legislative, executive or administrative proceedings -- federal, state or municipal -- may be published and successfully defended as a qualified privilege.

Some public meetings afford no privilege in themselves, but a report of such meetings is justified when there is general public interest. Certainly, the public has an interest in the discussion of taxes, public funds, health, welfare and community morals.

The third defence is FAIR COMMENT. Newspapers are free to discuss public affairs and to comment upon the conduct of public officials. The defence has three qualifications: a) The comment is founded upon facts or what the publisher had reasonable grounds to believe are facts; b) The comment is not made maliciously; c) The comment does not involve the private life or moral character of a person except where such has a direct bearing upon his qualifications and work.

The fourth defence is issue of CORRECTIONS. The publication of a correction technically admits the libel and therefore negates the truth as a defence. But when the defence of truth is not clearly evident, the publication should willingly correct. The correction operates to refute the plaintiff's claim of malice. A refusal to correct may be used to show malice. When made, the correction should be full and frank and used conspicuously as the article complained of.

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