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Fair Reporting Libel Laws

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Created to enable the public to follow government activities through accurate and fair reporting by news media, the fair reporting privilege allows journalists to report what others say, even defamatory statements, without fear of a libel lawsuit.

The libel laws of fair reporting are not recognized by all states, however, where recognized, the privilege protects journalists from liability if

  • They publish something defamatory and
  • The source of the defamatory statement is recognized under fair report guidelines, and
  • The source is used accurately and cited properly.

Libel Laws Protection Application

The fair report standard applies when

  • A public official makes an official public statement or creates an official public document about a matter of public concern
  • The information from the official document or statement is properly attributed to its source and the information is fairly and accurately portrayed.
  • A statement is made by anybody appearing at an executive or legislative government proceeding
  • A statement appears in an indictment, warrant, pleading or other document in a civil or criminal court proceeding

As with most libel privileges, the elements of fair reporting are defined by individual states. Generally accepted official public documents include:

  • Government records
  • Official reports and official statements

Records and reports that are not complete, and which have not been released to the public are generally not covered in this privilege.

A plaintiff can defeat this privilege by showing that the defendant published the report with actual malice or, in the case of court documents, ignored a request from the plaintiff to publish his side of the story or the news of a final court decision exonerating the plaintiff.

Fair and Accurate Source Reporting

Newsworthy facts and statements are protected regardless of their truth. Fair reporting privilege does not hinge on the truth of the statement, so long as the reportage accurately portrays the statement made based on the definition of substantial truth.

Protection under fair reporting does hinge on accuracy and neutrality. Condensing long official documents is acceptable so long as the reporter does so in good faith, without picking and choosing statements and excerpts that portray only one side, or make the subject look more positive or negative.

When dealing with a libel legal privilege, a reporter must follow the rules set by his state, as each state defines its own interpretation of the defense. Reporters who make honest mistakes are generally still afforded protection, but when neutrality is lost, so is the privilege.

The laws and penalties regarding libel lawsuits vary for each state; however Ohio law presents a fair and clear representation of libel, and is used in this article to offer a basic understanding of defamation and libel civil law. The information contained in this article should not be construed as legal advice, and those facing a libel legal suit should seek counsel immediately.

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