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 Post subject: Why bother with facts? There's "no liability"
PostPosted: Sun Jan 26, 2003 3:18 am 
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This Q&A is from the recent Michigan Press Association bulletin. While the lame response to the "murder" question is bad enough, the idea this "expert" has on what constitutes acceptably accurate reporting is appalling. I intend to write MPA about this, and when I get an answer, I'll post it here.<p>--------------------<p>Q: When a person is charged with homicide, can I say elsewhere that “police say he murdered” somebody? In the same vein, I have several defendants who are charged with home invasions and breaking and entering. If they took things out of the buildings they went into, can I refer to these incidents as “theburglaries?” Or will I get in trouble because that isn’t the actual charge?<p>A: Although you always strive for accuracy, the Michigan Supreme Court and the U. S. Supreme Court recognize that reporters are not lawyers, nor are your readers. Therefore so long as the gist or the sting of what you write about court proceedings is accurate, there is no liability.<p>Thus, to say that Defendant was charged with fraud when in fact he was charged with securities law violations was substantially true and there was no liability. A report that the defendant stole $100,000 when he really only stole $10,000 was substantially true. A report that the defendant pled guilty when in fact it was nolo contendere (no contest) was substantially true. A report that the defendant molested his step daughter 56 times was substantially true even though at trial the child testified to only three instances and the defendant was acquitted. <p>So you can use the word burglary instead of B & E or home invasion; you can use murder rather than homicide.  Murder and burglary are terms that readers understand, even if the legislature has come up with new terminology.<p>So long as the gist or the sting of the report is a fair and accurate report of the official record, you are okay. If you said that someone pled guilty to sexual misconduct and it was really check kiting, that might be a problem. <p>But so long as the crime you write about is substantially the same as the crime for which the defendant was charged or convicted, there is no liability. As one court said, if you were charged with stealing $1,000 the effect on your reputation is the same as if you were charged with stealing $10,000.  It is a crime. You are a thief.<p>The gist or the sting is the same.


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 Post subject: Re: Why bother with facts? There's "no liability"
PostPosted: Sun Jan 26, 2003 4:51 am 
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This is my letter to the Q&A address, with cc's to two other key MPA personnel. I'll be curious as to their response.<p>------------------------------<p>To Whom It May Concern:<p>I'm a former reporter and editor at a handful of Michigan papers, and I still read the MPA bulletin.<p>I must say, I was taken aback by your answer to the Q&A-section question that someone posed in the Jan. 23 bulletin. I found your views on "accurate" reporting to be appalling, and believe you should submit a retraction.<p>The question was straightforward enough: Is it a OK to say, "Police say he murdered somebody"? Is a breaking-and-entering a "burglary"?<p>The answers to both these questions are in the AP Stylebook, and I'm surprised the answer just didn't refer to it. Yes, calling a B&E a burglary is OK, although B&E would be more accurate (a burglary by definition does not necessarily imply a forced entry). But no, it is *not* OK to say, "Police say he murdered somebody." You *never* call someone a murderer before a conviction on that charge. And even if you're not pointing a finger at someone specifically, you shouldn't say something like "The victim was murdered" unless the cops say the killing was obviously premeditated - and those cases are pretty rare.<p>Instead, the MPA answer says, "You can use murder instead of homicide" because a term like murder is a term "that readers understand." Incredible! Labeling a crime something it's not is acceptable in Michigan newspapers now? I just don't know how you can justify inaccurate reporting with such an egregiously specious rationalization as "readers understand" the word "murder." And please, don't tell me the courts have said it's OK. Even if that's the case, papers should not take it as a license to practice sloppy journalism.<p>As troubling as your answer to the "murder" question was, you really stretched the limits of credibility when you said that reporting a theft of $10,000 as one of $100,000 was still "substantially true." If being off by "only" a factor of 10 is "substantially true" reporting, then what about factors of 100? A thousand? If a paper writes that someone stole $100,000 when he in fact stole $100, is this still "substantially true" as long as the paper called it "theft"? Court action or no, any reporter at every newspaper I'm familiar with would have a lot of explaining to do if he reported a $10,000 theft as a $100,000 one.<p>But the incest example really took the cake. No, you *cannot* say someone molested his stepdaughter 56 times when the stepdaughter testified to only three instances. Fifty-six does not equal 3; spare me the Orwellian logic that both are "substantially true" - even if the stepfather is acquitted!<p>All six paragraphs of this answer to an innocuous queston seemed to provide a license for inaccurate reporting, as long as you can get away with it in court. This is sending a terrible message. You should be ashamed.<p>Regards,
Gary K.


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 Post subject: Re: Why bother with facts? There's "no liability"
PostPosted: Sun Jan 26, 2003 6:04 pm 
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At first glance, i thought this was a bar association explanation of whether to expect to lose a libel case. I was wrong.<p>If this is what state PRESS associations are teaching reporters and their editors, it explains a lot of the bad copy we see.<p>Do we know the profession of this "expert"?<p>[ January 26, 2003: Message edited by: Wayne Countryman ]</p>


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 Post subject: Re: Why bother with facts? There's "no liability"
PostPosted: Sun Jan 26, 2003 10:28 pm 
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<blockquote><font size="1" face="TImes, TimesNR, serif">quote:</font><hr>Originally posted by Wayne Countryman:
Do we know the profession of this "expert"?<hr></blockquote><p>The MPA bulletin offers no clues as to the identity or profession of the individual. If I learn anything, you guys will be the first to know.


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 Post subject: Re: Why bother with facts? There's "no liability"
PostPosted: Mon Jan 27, 2003 1:17 am 
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I'd reckon that renders the "expert's" bloviation as well, worthless.


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 Post subject: Re: Why bother with facts? There's "no liability"
PostPosted: Mon Jan 27, 2003 6:26 pm 
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"As one court said, if you were charged with stealing $1,000 the effect on your reputation is the same as if you were charged with stealing $10,000. It is a crime. You are a thief."<p>Well, no, you are a person charged with theft. But maybe the rules are different in Michigan.


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 Post subject: Re: Why bother with facts? There's "no liability"
PostPosted: Mon Jan 27, 2003 6:45 pm 
Clearly they are, as anybody who saw "Bowling For Columbine" could tell.


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 Post subject: Re: Why bother with facts? There's "no liability"
PostPosted: Tue Jan 28, 2003 1:49 am 
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OK, I got a response back from the answer person. The individual is not a journalist, but a lawyer. Actually, I'm relieved. No journalist, someone whose actually supposed to know something about writing news, would have any excuse for writing an answer like that.<p>The answer person acknowledged that courtroom standards are not necessarily compatible with newsroom standards, which wasn't made clear. This point will be addressed in a subsequent Q&A.<p>Fair enough.<p>My response: An apology for a vitriolic diatribe that I assumed was against an (incompetent) journalist. I also noted that while the legal perspective can be useful, answers to journalism questions should be "vetted" by a journalist to make sure they're not inconsistent with newsroom standards. I hope the MPA guys cc'd in on the e-mail take note.


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