Accuracy in Media

Two lawyers who teach at Penn State have come up with a novel approach to countering sloppy and inaccurate journalism. Their proposal was described by the Village Voice and will be published in an upcoming edition of an obscure academic journal. The two lawyers have crafted a new legal theory that they have dubbed “journalistic malpractice.” They argue that the New York Times, for example, should be held liable for misleading readers of stories filed by Jayson Blair.

They think Blair’s editors knew or should have known that Blair was fabricating his stories. They think that enough “red flags” were raised about Blair that his editors should have taken “reasonable care” to check his stories for accuracy. By not doing so, they think that the editors and the paper itself should be held legally accountable to the Times’ readers. They note that Blair’s articles continued to be published despite serious doubts raised by his immediate supervisors. Consequently, they think that the Times should be “forced to pay for each of Blair’s lies.”

They admit that the actual damages to the Times’ readers might be hard to prove. But one of the lawyers offered the analogy of a school bus company. If you knew that one of the drivers had a bad record, would you let him continue to drive your children to school each day?

Although it has been proposed before, an alternative might be to impose a “Son of Sam” law on wayward journalists. The law has been adopted by many states to prevent criminals from profiting from their victims. CNN has recently reported that Blair has signed a major book deal with New Millennium Press. He got a mid-six figure advance and more than 200,000 of his books will be printed. That would make a juicy target for a media malpractice lawsuit.

A children’s charity in Houston has filed suit against a television reporter, his station and its owners for breaking a promise. The suit alleges that the TV reporter failed to interview the founders of the charity before his station ran a story very critical of the charity. The plaintiffs argue that they did not have an opportunity to respond to the story, which was filled with inaccuracies and errors. Consequently, they allege that the story destroyed the charity’s reputation and hurt its ability to feed hungry children.

Interestingly, the lawsuit does not allege libel, but that the station and its owners failed to properly train and supervise the reporter. The lawsuit alleges that the reporter was scheduled to meet with the founders, but the station ran the story the day before. The founders then canceled the interview and did not respond to later stories about the charity. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from the reporter, the station and its owners, ABC and Disney. A lawyer for the plaintiff said, “There is no First Amendment right to break a promise.” The defendants’ lawyers counter that the founders had plenty of opportunities to respond and that they should have filed a libel suit, if they thought they were damaged in some way. Maybe the New York Times should take heed.

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