[Editor’s note: This post was written by my good friend, Gordon Firemark. He’s a media and entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, California. He is the author of the Podcast, Blog & New Media Producer’s Legal Survival Guide, and host of the Entertainment Law Update Podcast. http://www.firemark.com]
Do you post blogs, podcasts, videos or other material on the web? Do you ever talk about other people in this context?
If you answered yes, you could someday be on the wrong end of a libel lawsuit.
Libel is defamation that’s been recorded, printed, or broadcast, as opposed to slander which refers to spoken-word defamation.
In this post, I’ll share some simple strategies and best practices you can use to avoid being sued for libel.
First, check your sources… Your source for information could have a vendetta against the subject and willfully or unintentionally misrepresent the facts for his or her own purposes. Or, your source could just be mistaken. Even large media outlets sometimes screw up and get things wrong. Don’t rely on someone else to be accurate.
Get independent corroboration whenever possible. Sources may disappear or recant what they said in the face of a lawsuit. Having multiple sources for your information lends credence to the assertions you make, and can provide ‘safety in numbers’.
Although public figures and public officials are subject to higher standards of proof in libel suits, it’s still smart to verify the accuracy of a story. Journalists are trained to contact the subject of a story for comment. Juries do not respond favorably to reporters or other writers who fail in this regard. Whether a blogger is considered a journalist or not, he or she needs to be aware of the standards to which they’ll be held.
Be sure your story is accurate and complete. If you edit aggressively, it is possible to convey a false impression by omitting relevant details, or even from a carelessly constructed string of true statements. Make sure the story does not mislead the reader or listener because of poor editing.
Don’t talk about matters you don’t fully understand. If you’re talking about a legal case or controversy, be sure you get the facts (not the allegations, the facts) right, and report accurately on things.
Opinion is not-defamatory, so when you express yours, be sure it’s clear that you’re doing so. The more facts and data you bring out to support your views, the more likely your piece will be construed as factual, and can subject you to liability if you’re wrong. (Note from Adrianos: Opinions can be actionable if they imply provably false facts.)
Be judicious in your use of generic stock photos or footage to illustrate stories about controversial subject matter. It is possible to defame someone by juxtaposing his or her image with a story about someone else.
Don’t republish information without corroboration. Just because someone else said it does not mean that you won’t be sued for republishing it.
If you do find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit or threatened suit, contact a lawyer right away. Publishing a retraction or an apology can actually be a bad idea if not handled properly.