Wednesday, July 26, 2006

How to put your paper on the hook for libel

Ten years after Richard Jewell was falsely accused of bombing the 1996 Summer Olympics, he's still fighting the paper that first identified him as a suspect, the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

He's accusing the paper of libel and, because he became a public figure in the ordeal, has to prove actual malice. His lawyer Lin Wood is trying to prove that -- by using depositions from AJC copy editors. From the New York Times:
Part of the evidence is the taped testimony of Anita Harkins, a copy editor who said she had alerted higher editors to potential problems with a column that compared Mr. Jewell to Wayne Williams, the convicted killer linked to more than a score of Atlanta child murders.

As Ms. Harkins wrings her hands in her lap, sighs loudly and shifts her eyes, Mr. Wood repeatedly asks her to say what worried her about the column.

"Is it the truth, Ms. Harkins, that you also had questions or concerns with respect to this article about libel?"

"I thought that might be an issue," she says.

"That being the issue of libel?" Mr. Wood asks.


Three other copy editors also said on tape that they had had concerns about the column and that they too had gone to their superiors about it.

In a piece at E&P (thanks, Todd), Mark Fitzgerald points out that the tapes seem to show more careful consideration as part of the editorial process than they do any actual malice.

In any case, he says, the paper has a trump card. "The newspaper only reported accurately the FBI's inaccurate insights," he wrote. And truth is an absolute defense in libel cases.

The AJC couldn't agree more. Just look to this telling correction appended to the NYT story quoted above:

An article on Saturday about a hearing on a motion to dismiss a libel case brought against The Atlanta Constitution by Richard Jewell, a security guard who was identified as a suspect in the 1996 Olympic Park bombing and later cleared, referred incompletely to the newspaper's reasons for the motion. In addition to saying it believed the truth of what it published at the time and so lacked actual malice, the newspaper argued that its coverage was in fact accurate.

If you're feeling scholarly, check out this AEJMC paper: The Last Line of Defense in Matters of Ethics? Copy editors' ethics role conceptions. The abstract might grab you more than the title does:
Can newspaper copy editors, long known as the last line of defense against errors, be final guardians of journalistic ethics? Data from 470 copy desk workers at 100 newspapers indicate that most think their jobs should have an ethics-watchdog component but often do not -- apparently because of constraints in their newsrooms on who can raise what question. This conflict between ideal and real ethics roles was associated with lower job satisfaction.


At 3:47 PM, July 26, 2006, Anonymous Mike Eiler said...

If I bring a libel concern to my bosses and am brushed off, then my paper deserves to be on the hook if it turns out I was right.

At 5:41 PM, July 27, 2006, Blogger Nicole said...

I made a similar comment to a colleague after first reading the article.

The paper may be off the hook for the libel, but I bet it was a lesson to them: Listen to your copy editors.

At 10:54 PM, August 01, 2006, Anonymous Rknil said...

Why am I not surprised at the results of that poll? And of course, the copy editors fight SO hard -- they simply say they are dissatisfied. And in other news, the sun rises in the east.


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