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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  1. icon
    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), 26 Feb 2013 @ 5:52am

    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.

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