Journalists Have No Obligation To Cover A Story About You The Way You Want Them To Cover It

from the glad-we've-got-that-covered dept

As we’ve discussed a few times, we seem to get threatened with a lawsuit approximately once a month or so (though they tend to come in bunches after extended quiet periods). The threats usually fall under one of two categories: someone upset about something we wrote about them, or someone upset about something someone in the comments said about them. When it’s cases where people are upset about something that we have said, often the person is angry that we didn’t call them to get their side of the story, as if that were some sort of legal requirement. We’ve seen such claims very recently, in fact.

However, in a recent court case in California that looked at exactly that question, a judge made it pretty damn clear that journalists have absolutely no legal requirement to reach out to the people they are writing about. The story is a fairly crazy one. The Associated Press wrote a story about a court granting Sheryl Crow a three years restraining order against a guy named Philip Sparks, who had admitted to threatening to shoot both Crow and famed movie exec Harvey Weinstein. The AP reported that Sparks had accused both Crow and Weinstein of “stealing $7.5 million from him, videotaping and following him without permission and leaving him homeless.” It also reported that a forensic psychiatrist had testified that “Mr. Sparks is unambiguously delusional.”

In response, Sparks sued the Associated Press, arguing that the article was defamatory. Since it was filed in California and California has a good anti-SLAPP law, the AP filed an anti-SLAPP motion. Sparks tried to argue against the First Amendment: “There needs to be a boundary between the Media and the First Amendment, otherwise the Media can hide behind the First Amendment and publish anything that they want regardless if the statements are false, or violate one’s civil rights.” Of course, that’s not true. Defamation laws still apply to the press, but the key issue here seemed to really be about whether or not the AP needed to report on Sparks’ version of the story.

Thankfully, the judge pointed out that this was simply untrue. The “tentative order” from LA Superior Court judge Rolf Treu has some useful quotes. As an aside, the website for the LA Superior Court is horrifically bad and nearly impossible to navigate. The fact that it says: “This site is best viewed using Internet Explorer 5 or higher.” should tell you something… After a fair bit of poking and prodding, I finally found the ruling, which I’ve published here and embedded below. But the key point is that there is no requirement to get his side of the story:

To the extent Plaintiff takes issue with Defendant’s failure to report facts that Plaintiff raised during the hearing (see Pl.’s Response filed 1/11/13 p. 12-13 (concerning a security expert who pretended to be Plaintiff’s lawyer and challenges to Dr. Glaser’s diagnosis)), Defendant is not required to present Plaintiff’s side of his story or his key facts

The court also pointed out that the AP had no requirement to report on the fact that the doctor who declared him delusional had been sanctioned by the Medical Board of California, noting that “there is no such requirement.” The judge makes the key point: as long as the AP reported accurately, they were not required to cover the story the way Sparks wanted them to cover it:

To the average reader, the substance of judicial proceeding was the issuance of the restraining orders, which was accurately described by Defendant’s article.

While this just confirms that which was already known, it seemed useful to remind people of this basic fact. Just because someone doesn’t contact you or report things the way you want them to, it doesn’t mean it’s against the law.

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Comments on “Journalists Have No Obligation To Cover A Story About You The Way You Want Them To Cover It”

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Zos (profile) says:

Re: Re:

if you can’t show an example that includes that activity happening REGARDING THE SAME LAW, then your comment is stupid and irrelevant. strawmanish.

murder is illegal. i think we can mostly agree that murder is also bad. (unless it’s a lobbyist).

pot is illegal. unless you make a paycheck from the drug war, i doubt you think it’s morally wrong.
sometimes even a broken system can be made to work for you. it doesn’t mean the shit’s not broken.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Which law?

Hopefully you realise there is more than one law.. In fact the amount of laws currently on the books is becoming innumerable (and therefore unknowable but that’s a different matter)

In fact thinking about it you probably do understand this, you’re like a Bible thumper pointing at the Bible and stating “but the bible says so”.

Oh and feel free to type out manually with descriptions every single law currently in existence. Not only will it educate you it will allow us not to hear from you for a very long time

IP Lawyer says:

Re: Re:

Your comment is total and utter hogwash.

Here, in America, we have a lot of good laws and a lot of bad ones. We also have a deeply frustrating court system that is extremely difficult to navigate without an attorney – and we are expensive.

If you cannot deal with nuanced viewpoints, maybe you shouldn’t be reading Techdirt.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Average Reader Standard?

Well, I think they don’t want someone to say something like “That message was in code. When I wrote on my blog that the guy was convicted of murder, I actually was commenting on the weather forecast. It’s a code everyone in my family knows.” If a reasonable person would find it defamatory, then that has to be the standard.

And if it comes before a jury, you’re pretty much going to get 12 average people deciding it anyway.

And it could be worse. Instead of “average person”, the standard could be “moron in a hurry”.

elemecca (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Horrifically bad indeed. They apparently don’t know about GET parameters. To find the case documents you have to go here and enter “BC495593” in the Case Number field at the bottom:

I couldn’t figure out a way to create a direct link. It seems to POST the case number to one page which then redirects you to the display page without passing along the case number. I guess it stores it in your session or a cookie or something.

JarHead says:

Work of Art

Think of it this way, every article ever written is a work of art. Having a friend who work day in day out as a journalist, and another as translator, made me appreciate this fact. There’s creativity involves in every writing.

We might not like what is written, but forcing every article is written to ‘conform’ to someone’s liking means limiting that creativity. Taken to a broader context, that means limiting innovation.

Anonymous Coward says:

I can’t help but feel that what often pass for journalism these days are at least partially to blame.
Leaving out silly things like facts in favour of simply having differing sides argue their opinions are getting so predominant that the mentioned “average reader” might well expect it to be a requirement be now =P

Ninja (profile) says:

This site is best viewed using Internet Explorer 5 or higher.

I admit I chuckled here. Dark times were those…

Ahem, more on topic: reminds me of that other discussion about needing Federal anti-SLAPP rules (and I chuckle all the time I see this). Unfortunately the US society has become lawsuit happy so you need to provide simple and cheap ways for someone to dismiss a case in the most obvious examples…

Anonymous Coward says:

is it not journalistically prudent to print both sides of a story? surely being bias is a bit ridiculous when the object is to investigate and print ‘news’? printing one side of a story isn’t ‘covering’ that story, is it, it’s giving a single viewpoint from which no one can draw a real opinion or answer.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: Re:

is it not journalistically prudent to print both sides of a story?

It is prudent to critically analyze all sides of a story, to tell the truth as best as you can in a way your readers will understand.

By always printing both sides of a story, and giving them equal time, one thing you can run the risk of is giving a sense of false balance – that is, that there is an actual controversy, rather than one or more of the sides being completely flat out crazy, or as in this case “unambiguously delusional.” Or in a story with more than 2 sides, or highly nuanced issues, if you lump everyone into 2 categories, pro/con or left/right or Republican/Democrat, you lose that nuance.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

As the other commenters have said, it all depends. One of the things wrong with “journalism” today is this fetish for always getting “both sides” even when the truth and facts are heavily distorted by doing so.

In any case, you’re talking about a matter of professionalism, not law. It remains that there is no, and should be no, legal obligation.

Phil Sparks says:

Journalists lied in Article

I wasn’t asking for the journalists to write MY side of the story as much as I wanted them to write the truth about what happened in the courtroom. I have the Reporters Transcript that says word for word that what the media put out in that Story was completely different than what actually happened in the courtroom. That is what I am suing for…defamation of character and the media is not covered by Absolute Privilege because to be covered by Absolute Privilege, they have to put out the Story in a “Fair and Accurate” manner in which the courtcase took place. TechDirt, to put it plainly, you’re full of shit. You’re talking about something that you never investigated or put any effort into finding out if ANY of what the media wrote is true. You’re just following what everyone else is doing…which is kicking a man when he is down because they think a homeless guy which happened to be an artist/actor who got screwed over by the Studios and some ditzy scorned woman who is pathetically psycho…thinks he cannot win these lawsuits. That is where you’re wrong. I expect an apology on your website after I win these….everyday for a month…or I’ll sue *smile* (Flips the finger)

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