Anyone who’s been the subject of a negative news story has probably felt the urge to sue the news organization that published or aired that report.
In my experience, spokespersons who angrily threaten to “sue those media bastards” are usually just issuing idle threats in the heat of the moment.
Fortunately, most of them are able to handle their grievances in ways that don’t require lawyers, such as: requesting a correction, using social media to correct the record, working with competing—and more favorable—news organizations to balance the coverage, or just letting it go.
But in rare circumstances, the legal system may be your best option, particularly if you’re the target of reckless or purposefully bad reporting by reporters.
I asked my attorney (and childhood friend) Erik Pelton to help me make sense of libel and slander laws. His firm, Erik M. Pelton & Associates
, specializes in intellectual property and social media issues, so he knows his stuff.
Here’s what he explained:
Libel and slander are legal terms for injuring another party by making harmful misstatements.
Libel relates to statements made in print or online; slander applies to oral statements. Both are difficult to establish in the United States, where the plaintiff (the person suing) has the burden of proof. Claims are easier to prove in many other countries, because the person accused
of libel or slander has to prove that the disputed statement is true.
To win a lawsuit in the United States, the statement must have been negligently made and
resulted in harm to the person who was allegedly defamed. Public figures have an even higher threshold to meet, and they must show that the person making the statement knew it to be false or had a reckless disregard for the truth.
Erik also advises that to avoid being sued yourself, you should be sure that any negative statements you make about a specific individual or business are accurate, or are clearly identified as your opinion.
In conclusion, you have a high threshold to mount a successful lawsuit against a news organization. You may be able to win in unusual circumstances, despite the broad protections the law affords news organizations in the United States. But most targets of negative press will never sue, no matter how much they want to do so.
Brad Phillips is the author of the Mr. Media Training Blog. His firm, Phillips Media Relations, specializes in media and presentation training. He tweets at @MrMediaTraining.