Libel Cases Diminish, Study Reports; but Access Litigation Is on the Rise
Frenette, Liza, Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management
Libel cases diminish, study reports
Chicago--High cost, headline-making libel cases are finally thinning out, according to a nationwide survey by The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). The reason: Plaintiffs have realized that weak cases will not hold their own in court, and the media have taken a more careful look at handling stories and complaints, the study reveals.
At the same time, however, courts are facing more cases in access litigation, according to the four-month survey titled "Media Litigation '88." The increase in access disputes, the survey says, results from increased courtroom and public meeting closings, combined with the routine sealing of court documents.
Still, "for the first time in recent memory, news organizations are disposing of old libel actions faster than plaintiffs are filing new ones," reports the survey. Just two or three years ago, for example, the Miami Herald at times was faced with up to 10 pending libel actions, according to the survey. But only one case--filed in 1983--remains today. Libel cases have dropped about 17 percent in the last three years, compared to the average from the previous five years, reports Paul O'Brien, an attorney for Mutual Insurance Company of Bermuda, one of the industry's largest libel insurers.
In contrast to access laws, libel is well defined, and these boundaries are finally holding back plaintiffs, the survey states. "This heavy burden of proof, the result of more than 20 years of the Supreme Court's grappling with centuries-old libel law, is now beginning to have its designed 'chilling effect' on potential libel plaintiffs," the SPJ says in its report.
In addition, the notable long and expensive cases--General Ariel Sharon against Time Inc., William Westmoreland against CBS, and Mobil Oil Company president William Tavoulareas against The Washington Post--have discouraged weak claims, according to the study.
"The Sharon and Westmoreland trials have been instrumental in the decrease in libel suits," states New York Times attorney George Freeman in the report.
The media has also renewed efforts to prevent libel claims, states the study of 31 newspapers, broadcast stations and news organizations. Recent actions include closer editorial supervision of investigative reporting, more frequent use of media lawyers to preview sensitive or potentially libelous stories, and willingness to publish corrections or clarifications when appropriate. …