Libel manual

Mark Plenke

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Libel is a published injury to reputation. Words, pictures or cartoons that expose a person to public hatred, shame, disgrace or ridicule, or that induce an ill opinion of a person, are libelous. To bring adequate care to your job as journalists, it is helpful to know something about the legal framework in which you function. For a primer on media law, refer to “The Associated Press Stylebook.”

Avoiding libel

Use the following guidelines to avoid libel:
• Double check all facts whenever a story could potentially damage someone’s reputation or business.
• Be cautious in speculating—or printing that some one else speculates—if a person’s reputation or business is in question. Remember that merely quoting someone accurately does not necessarily make the damaging statement “true.”
• Make every possible effort to get the other side of the story if someone’s reputation or business is in question. A couple of phone calls is not enough. If someone declines our offer to tell his or her side of the story, this refusal should be printed.
• Examine with care the quality and motivation of sources and generally avoid anonymous sources. Whenever unnamed sources make damaging allegations, the managing editor and the adviser should be consulted prior to publication.
• Have a concern for good taste and decency.
• Do not assume anything, and be very careful interpreting court documents and official records.

Handling libel

Use the following guidelines if someone threatens a libel suit:
• Report any communication concerning a false statement, major error, request for retraction or threat of a libel suit immediately.
• Be polite to callers, even if they are irrational or obviously wrong. An insensitive response might trigger a libel suit. Even libel suits without merit are expensive and time-consuming to defend.
• Do not admit error. Instead, agree to check out the facts of a complaint.
• Do not volunteer any information about a possible error or speculate about how the error might have been made.
• Do not promise a retraction or clarification unless you have checked the facts, cleared it with the managing editor, and the managing editor has determined that a correction or clarification will be published.
• Publish corrections or clarifications in all cases when they are necessary and proper. Corrections should be given prominence similar to the error. A correction does not always reduce the possibility of a libel suit, but it may help reduce any damages if we are sued and lose the case.
• Refer any inquiries, requests or demands made by an attorney regarding a retraction or correction.

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