Can You Sue Those Media Bastards?

Anyone who’s been the target of a negative news story has probably felt the urge to sue a news organization at some point in their career.

In my experience, spokespersons who angrily threaten to “sue those media bastards” are usually just issuing idle threats in the heat of the moment. Fortunately, most media spokespersons are able to handle their grievances in ways that don’t require lawyers, such as: requesting a correction; using social media to correct the record; working with competing – and more favorable – news organizations to balance the coverage; or just letting it go.

But in rare circumstances, the legal system may be your best option, particularly if you’re the target of reckless or purposefully bad reporting by reporters.

I asked my attorney (and childhood friend) Erik Pelton to help me make sense of libel and slander laws. His firm, Erik M. Pelton & Associates, specializes in intellectual property and social media issues, so he knows his stuff.

Attorney Erik Pelton, who specializes in intellectual property and social media

Here’s what he explained:

Libel and slander are legal terms for injuring another party by making harmful misstatements.

Libel relates to statements made in print or online; slander applies to oral statements. Both are difficult to establish in the U.S., where the person suing has the burden of proof. Claims are easier to prove in many other countries, since the person accused of libel or slander has to prove that the disputed statement is true.

In order win a lawsuit in the U.S., the statement must have been negligently made and resulted in harm to the person defamed. Public figures have an even higher threshold to meet, and must show the person making the statement knew it to be false or had a reckless disregard for the truth.

Erik also advises that in order to avoid being sued yourself, you should be sure that any negative statements you make about a specific individual or business are accurate, or are clearly identified as your opinion.

In conclusion, you have a high threshold to meet in order to mount a successful lawsuit against a news organization. You may be able to win in unusual circumstances, despite the broad protections the law affords news organizations here in the United States. But most targets of negative press will never sue those media bastards, no matter how much they may want to.

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