Nothing attracts a pack of curious readers like a good list.
A list of, say, health-inspection violations issued to their favorite restaurants, or the assessed value of houses on their block, or registered sex offenders living in their neighborhood.
Such lists ” especially if they’re wrong ” can get journalists into hot water.
The Guthrie News Leader found out just how much trouble when on June 14, 2009, it published a list of addresses where registered sex offenders were living. The problem? One of the addresses was apparently incorrect.
Roy D. Nelson and Susan E. Ryan sued the News Leader and its parent company, Newspaper Holdings Inc., for negligence and libel in Oklahoma County District Court on May 17, according to the Oklahoma State Courts Network website.
The husband and wife claimed the address where they had lived for more than 10 years was erroneously included in the list, according to Courthouse News Service, a wire service for lawyers. As a result, the couple said they had suffered harassment, threats and feared for their lives.
They said the newspaper admitted the mistake and ran a correction. But they claimed the correction was not conspicuous enough, was not published in a Sunday edition as they had requested, and the inaccurate information was not removed from the newspaper’s website.
A 2002 libel suit against NewsOK.com also involved the state Department of Corrections sex offender registry. A jury slapped The Oklahoma Publishing Co.’s website with a $3.5 million judgment after it published the list, which included an outdated address. Someone else occupied the address where a registered sex offender had once lived.
An Oklahoma appellate court reversed the judgment in April 2005. The court ruled NewsOK.com was immune from liability because of the fair-report privilege, which protects media that accurately and fairly publish the contents of public records.
“Accurately” and “fairly” are the key words. A journalist cannot introduce errors into the records or change their meaning. However, courts have allowed “breathing room” when considering a mistake.
A 2008 libel suit against the Mansfield (Ohio) News Journal was dismissed after an incorrect indictment against a man was published because “a reporter’s eyes slipped to the wrong line on a court listing that included 57 indictments.” An expert witness testified that the mistake was a human error rather than negligence, according to Gannett Company Inc.’s Legal Watch. Evidence showed that no damage had been done and that the newspaper had corrected the error promptly and prominently.
If the Guthrie case progresses to trial, a jury will likely have to determine whether libel or negligence occurred.
Another list popular with readers reveals salaries. Student journalists under my watch in the early 1990s published the salaries of administrators at the University of Oklahoma. Talk about fascinating reading. There was only one problem: A couple of the numbers were wrong.
Willis, a former Muskogee Phoenix managing editor, teaches public affairs reporting at Oklahoma State University. He previously served as faculty adviser for The Oklahoma Daily at the University of Oklahoma.