Media and Libel: Rising Losses; More Than Three-Quarters of Jury Trials Lost; Courts Uphold First $3 Million Award

Article excerpt

Media and libel: Rising losses | The media are increasingly losing libel trials. During the mid 1980s, media defendants in court--including broadcast and print media--lost 72 percent of libel trials, compared to 54 percent during the early part of the decade, according to a study recently released by the Libel Defense Resource Center (LDRC).

Moreover, libel awards have increased. Media defendants now pay about 20 percent more in damages than they did in the early eighties.

The LDRC, a libel research organization supported by media groups, tracked 61 libel trials, at all judiciary levels, from 1984 through 1986. Six of those trials involved magazines, while 40 involved newspapers.

The greatest factor in deciding libel trials appears to be juries. About 95 percent of all libel trials come before juries, and media defendants lose 78 percent of those cases.

Observers blame the losses, in part, on the fact that many cases are dramatized in the courtroom and many jurors tend to sympathize with the injured, says Henry Kaufman, LDRC general counsel. Furthermore, "Jurors are not fully educated by the lawyers or the judge in the complexities of libel law," he asserts. "The jury can only handle the material given them."

Complicating the matter is the generally poor reputation the media has had in the 1980s. "There's a trend toward not only a dislike of the media, but an open hostility toward it," asserts Glen Evans, president of the American Society of Authors and Journalists. "That is reflected in the outcome of these trials."

Kaufman, however, is careful to add that his studies have not borne this out. "Although some jurors indicate some preconceptions toward the media," he notes, "we really haven't found that that kind of bias has been a primary factor."

Million dollar awards up

Damage awards during the 1984-86 study period averaged $1.1 million, down from the $2 million-plus average of the previous two years. Kaufman is quick to point out, though, that the reduction is misleading: Much of the decline is due to a few exceptionally large awards during the early 1980s. During the mid eighties, in fact, juries awarded a greater number of million dollar awards. …