|Media lawyer advises:
Accuracy, precision, caution
help guard against libel suits
Hushed gasps came from the audience as they winced at the $2.1-million award that Judge Ernest B. Murphy of the Massachusetts Superior Court won in 2005 against the Boston Herald in a libel lawsuit.
The Herald case was one of the many examples of libel Rob Bertsche discussed in a talk titled “Libel and privacy update.”
The talk by Bertsche, a lawyer and partner with Prince Lobel Tye LLP of Boston specializing in media law and the First Amendment, reviewed past instances of defamation. He advised the audience how to be prepared if sued for libel.
The talk took place Saturday, Feb. 20, at the New England Newspaper and Press Association winter convention in the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.
“Your goal is not to be sued for libel.” Bertsche told about 25 people who attended his talk. “When you prepare a story, you do everything you can to make sure it’s accurate.”
Bertsche said “your job isn’t to make them (people in your story) happy.”
Talking about the importance of accuracy in a story and why precise word choice is crucial, Bertsche said: “You can use colorful language that is precise and that comprehends the truth.”
In another libel case against the Herald, Joanna Marinova, a prison-rights activist, was awarded more than $550,000. Marinova’s lawyer had argued that the Herald falsely reported that Marinova had been “’bagged’ for engaging in ‘sexual acts’ with a killer con, in the prison’s visitor room.”
The story included several instances of false information, with two of those instances deemed to be defamatory by the court, Bertsche said.
The audience at Bertsche’s talk discussed the meaning of the word “bagged.” “Bagged” confused members of the audience because of its vague meaning, and members of the audience agreed that the word could be defamatory.
Members of the audience, confused by the meaning of “bagged” in the context of the libel case, asked: “What does that mean?” “Was she detained?”
Bertsche also talked about the “fair report privilege,” which allows a reporter to include in a news story a defamatory matter if and only if the source of the information is an official statement or document that is clearly attributed.
Bertsche said reporters should exercise the fair report privilege with caution.
“Tale bearers are as bad as tale makers,” Bertsche said. “Repeating libel is libelous.”
Bertsche also discussed opinion in the press, and how “opinion can’t be proved true or false, but is protected.”
A member of the audience asked: “Is it important to give the basis for opinion?”
Bertsche said the grounds for opinion must indeed be defined to ensure that it is in fact an opinion.
Bertsche discussed risks that exist even if journalists report fairly.
“If you give both ends of the story, are you still at risk of libel? Yes,” Bertsche said.
Bertsche stressed the importance of accuracy.
“You’ve got to get the gist … right,” he said.
‘Your goal is not to be sued for libel. When you prepare a story you do everything you can to make sure it’s accurate.’
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