As a journalist, you need to understand that you must have evidence that supports your story or statement. This is because any story you publish has the potential to damage someones reputation, and if the story turns out to be false, you could be sued for libel.
Libel is meant to protect an individual’s reputation. Furthermore, it allows a person who believes his or her reputation has been injured to file a claim against the party responsible, asking for damages in an effort to obtain monetary compensation and to restore his or her reputation.
The original idea behind this was that a person’s reputation is something of value that is worth protecting. This is understandable as, throughout the course of Western civilization, reputation has been closely associated with one’s ability to participate in a community’s social and economic life.
Libel’s counterpart, slander, is also a defamatory act that damages reputation. However, slander is when a reputation is damaged through spoken word, which makes it much harder to prove. Libel, on the other hand, is a defamatory act that damages reputation through writing, whether that be an article, social media post, billboard, etc. Because this it is written, a party is much more likely to win a libel case compared to a slander case.
Many of the issues involving libel that existed in previous eras have surfaced again in the 20th and 21st centuries, as the opportunities for libelous speech have increased exponentially with the development of communications technology. With that said, there is a still a requirement for the party to demonstrate one or more claims of libel through evidence, which is known as the burden of proof.
A plaintiff must prove that the libel was a statement of fact, was published, clearly concerned the plaintiff, was defamatory, was false, caused damage or harm and the defendant is clearly at fault. As you can see, libel is not always the easiest to prove, but proving those aforementioned characteristics will certainly help your case.
However, the first characteristic, “a statement of fact” might be confusing at first sight. If it is a fact, then it’s true, and therefore not libelous, right? Well, not exactly. In regards to libel, a “statement of fact” just means that the libel was an assertion, appearing to be fact. In other words, the libelous statement was not just an opinion.
For instance, if you write that the food at a certain restaurant is awful, that is an opinion, and therefore not classified as libel. However, if you write that that specific restaurant gave someone food poisoning or has rats, you are offering an assertion of fact that can either be proven or disproven, meaning it can be tried as libel if disproven.
Another major key in libel cases is that the plaintiff is required to show that he or she was harmed or, possibly, was a member of a small group that was defamed. With that said, as long as someone other than the plaintiff and the defendant recognize that the content is about the plaintiff, identification has been made. In addition, the intention of the publisher is not critical to this determination; a publisher may not have intended implicate the plaintiff, but identification could have occurred nonetheless.
Lastly, actual malice is defined as the knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. Knowledge of falsity is nothing more than lying or publishing information that you know is false. However, this is uncommon in the news media, as truth and accuracy are universal standards.
On the other had, reckless disregard for the truth is a little more common. Reckless disregard for the truth is just a more professional way of classifying sloppy journalism, as seen by Sabrina Erdely in “A Rape on Campus“. Things that can be classified as a reckless disregard for truth, for example, could be not cross-checking information, verifying your information, asking witnesses, checking the credibility of your sources, letting your biases drive your reporting and so on.
To prevent this, simply stay objective, do your job and don’t take short cuts. With that said, both reckless disregard for truth and knowledge of falsity can be prevented if you simply perform the fundamentals of your job.