How-To Guide: Libel Law: What Every Reporter Must Know

As any reporter or editor knows, libel law is complicated. "But ignorance is no defense," cautions Doug Pierce, who conducts libel training sessions in newsrooms across the country.

"As with mastering writing and reporting, journalists should at least know the basics of libel law" he believes. With that in mind, Pierce offers this primer outlining what he thinks journalists must know about libel to improve and protect their craft - along with suggestions of where to turn for more information:

1. Become more familiar with what constitutes libel - earmark the following criteria. "First and foremost, libel is a false and defamatory statement concerning someone," says Pierce. "It also has to be about someone in particular. For example it's not libelous to say all lawyers are crooks because that's not specific. To be considered libel, the statement must also be published to a third party. These days that includes almost anything: radio, TV, print, online sites and even email publications," he says.

In addition: "Another big thing in the law is that the [statement] must be unprivileged to be considered libel. In other words, the media enjoys several types of privileges. One of these is the constitutional protection that if the story is about a public official, you will not be held liable unless you published the statement with malice. The law basically gives the media a margin of error. For a statement to be libelous, it must be proved that you knew it false or that you acted in disregard for the truth."

2. Beware of misperceptions shared by reporters - don't assume you're covered. "Journalists often don't understand that repeating a false statement will make you just as liable in the eyes of the law as the person who made the statement," cautions Pierce. "Tale bearers are just as liable as tale makers," he says. "For example, say a TV reporter covers a shooting. One neighbor says Mr. Smith did it. But Mr. Smith says it was Mr. Jones. The anchors put the comments on the air. What happens is Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith both sue the station because they know that's where the money is."

The upshot: "If you publish it [a libelous statement made by someone else], you are responsible. Equally important: Remember that the outlet will usually end up being a target - not the source."

Another area of concern: "Reporters can also get in trouble and be sued for slander if they're just gathering [string] for an investigative story," according to Pierce. "For example, say you're working a story about the mayor having an affair and you communicate this [detail] to people while doing research. That could be considered slander - the mayor can go after you for that."

3. Be your own editor - watch for red flags in your reporting. "There are a lot of things reporters, their editors and attorneys need to watch for when reviewing copy," says Pierce. "Red flag words are a great starting point. These are words that make people mad - or that can be construed as harmful."

His advice: "Scan your copy for words like: adultery, alcoholic, bankrupt, bribery, charged (with a crime), scam and swindle," Pierce suggests. "When you see those types of words, run - don't walk - to your editor or lawyer. Most news organizations will have someone up the chain review stories for things like this. But it's helpful to know what they're looking for yourself."

Similarly: "One-sided stories open the door to libel - so watch for situations where you might be used by a source," says Pierce. "The way to counter that is to always get the other side. That includes getting plenty of background. For example, someone may be mad at a homebuilder and will try to use the press to generate bad press for the [builder]. Watch out for situations that are too good to be true. Similarly, be careful when someone brings you dirt on somebody else. Step back and ask if you're being used."

Pierce shares this additional warning sign: "It's one thing to protect your sources - but you have to be careful about a source's veracity and possible exaggerations if a person is unwilling to let you use his name. Hiding behind anonymity is a warning sign. It suggests the source isn't willing to stand behind the statement."

4. Know how to protect yourself - marshal your resources in advance. "A first line of defense for a reporter is knowing [the beat] inside and out," Pierce continues. "Most journalists go through j-school - but nobody prepares them for this stuff. Journalists therefore get into trouble because they don't get [the beat] and its nuances - so they end up saying or relaying something that is incorrect and potentially harmful." He offers these additional suggestions:

Know who has your back. "Understand your newsroom culture," advises Pierce. "Know what your outlet's procedures are and what is expected of you when issues like this arise. For example, will your paper stand behind you if someone calls saying a statement in your story was libel? Know who to turn to and how your supervisor approaches these things before they happen."

Follow procedures - don't respond off the cuff. "As the saying goes, 'It's not the lie that gets you - it's the cover up,"' says Pierce. "In other words, if you make a mistake, go to your boss right away instead of sitting on it or trying to cover it up. The bottom line is that people call all the time and say you got the story wrong. There are benefits in running retractions," he adds. "But be very careful with these. When a demand is made for a retraction, you have the opportunity to turn a bad situation into a complete disaster. You can make it worse by firing off responses on your own. My advice is not to engage - take it upstairs right away. Check with your editors and attorneys. Funnel it to higher authorities first."

Bone up on libel law. "None of these tips begin to encapsulate the whole of libel law," concedes Pierce. "That's why newsrooms and institutions offer seminars on the topic. My advice would be to ask your editor to conduct a brown-bag lunch or in-house training session on this. Similarly, law firms or [your outlet's representation] will usually conduct workshops on libel when asked." Also, "Participate in sessions offered by your professional media association. For example, The Society of Professional Journalists has information on libel - so does the Media Law Resource Center and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press."

Pick up newsletters and other resources. "Be on the lookout for newsletters and booklets on libel," Pierce says. "For example, the National Association of Broadcasters distributes stuff on this via email - but it somehow never makes its way down to front-line reporters. Finally, no reporter can afford to overlook the AP Stylebook and Libel Manual."

(Copyright 2004, Reprinted by permission fromm Master Journalist e-newsletter. For a free subscription, visit