Legal and Ethical Issues

Although it should not be the motivating factor for insisting on accuracy, there is always the threat of libel facing those journalists who through carelessness, ignorance, or malice make inaccurate statements in their scripts and reports that reflect on the character or reputation of an individual or group. Libel laws differ from state to state, but essentially writers or reporters can be sued for libel if anything they write or report: (1) exposes an individual or group to public scorn, hatred, ridicule, or con- tempt; (2) causes harm to someone in their occupation or profession; or (3) causes someone to be shunned or avoided.

Reporters must also remember that it is not necessary to have actually used a person’s name to be sued for libel. If the audience knows to whom a reporter is referring, even without the name, the reporter could be sued for libel if the comments harm the person’s reputation.

Although libel traditionally refers to printed material and slander to spoken words, the distinction between the two terms has little meaning for broadcast reporters. Recognizing that broadcast material is usually scripted, many state laws regard any defamatory statements on radio and television as subject to libel laws. Attorney and former reporter Bruce Sanford says there are certain words that writers and editors should be wary of using. Here is a partial list of what Sanford refers to as “red flag” words:

Adulterydeadbeat illegitimate 
Atheist double- crosserincompetent 
Bankruptdrug addict infidelity  
Bigamistdrunkard intimate 
Blackmailex-convict liar 
Bribery fascist mental disease
Cheat fool perjurer
Corruptionfraud  shyster 
Crook hypocrite unprofessional

Remember also that using the word alleged before a potentially libelous word does not make it any less libelous.


Courts usually recognize only three defenses against libel: truth, privilege, and fair comment.

The truth is the best defense, but in some states the courts have ruled that truth is only a defense if the comments were not malicious.

Privilege covers areas such as legislative and judicial hearings and debates and documents that are in the public domain. If a reporter quotes a potentially libelous comment made by a senator during a debate, the reporter could not be sued for libel.

Fair comment also is used as a defense against libel. Public officials, performers, sports figures, and others who attract public attention must expect to be criticized and scrutinized more than most people. If a sports commentator, for example, says that college football coach Joe Brown is a “lousy coach and the team would be better off if this inept, incompetent jerk moved on to a high-school coaching job, which he might just possibly be able to handle,” he might get a sock on the nose if he ran into the coach but he would not end up in court for libel.

There are limits, however, to what reporters can say even about public figures; the facts must be true. If the sports commentator had included the comment that “Brown’s real problem is that he is smoking too many joints at night,” then Brown would indeed have a libel case unless the sports commentator could prove that Coach Brown actually spends his nights smoking marijuana.

Cameras in the Courtroom

The use of cameras in courtrooms has raised serious questions about journalistic ethics and the responsibility of the broadcast media-particularly television. The issue of whether to allow camera coverage of trials has been a continuing debate, and it reached its peak with the double-murder trial of O.J. Simpson. TV news representatives, for the most part, argue that cameras should be allowed in courtrooms. Those opposed to the idea argue that the cameras compromise the rights and privacy of everyone involved in a trial and could have an impact on the outcome of the trial itself, issues that were clearly defined at the very start of the Simpson trial.

Even in states where cameras are allowed to record the proceedings, the cameras are operated on a pool basis to minimize the intrusion. The jury is not shown.

In 1995, only Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and the District of Columbia still barred cameras completely from courtrooms. However, there are a variety of restrictions in most of the states where cameras are allowed. In some states, the judge decides; in others, everyone involved in the case must agree to allow the cameras; in still other states, the decision depends on the nature of the case. And in some states, cameras are permitted only in certain courts or on an experimental basis. Sound confusing? It is. There is absolutely no consensus on the role of cameras in courtrooms, but those advocating their presence have made significant progress in the past few years.

As just noted, questions about the efficacy of cameras in courtrooms reached a peak during the murder trial of sports hero 0. J. Simpson. Superior Court Justice Lance Ito agreed to permit cameras in the Los Angeles courtroom, but even before the jury was selected he started to have second thoughts about all the media coverage. As mentioned earlier, Ito threatened to ban all broadcast coverage of the trial after KNBC- TV reported erroneously that DNA tests showed that Nicole Brown’s blood was found on one of Simpson’s socks. He said the story was “detrimental to Mr. Simpson’s right to a fair trial and it is fundamentally unfair.”

Judge Ito decided to allow the cameras to remain in the courtroom but only after threatening to bar them completely.

Few people believed that judge Ito had the power to terminate media coverage of the trial, which is protected by the First Amendment, but he certainly had the right to forbid cameras in the courtroom. Like the rules in twelve other states, California statutes give judges the power to permit or bar cameras in court.

In South Carolina, the judge in the murder trial of Susan Smith-charged in the drowning deaths of her two children- barred cameras from the court judge William Howard said the cameras would have a “chilling effect” on the trial. O.J. Simpson confers with one of his attorneys during his murder trial in Los Angeles. (AP World-Wide Photo)

Pros and Cons: What are the advantages and disadvantages of allowing cameras in court? The most obvious reason for cameras, in the opinion of most of the media, is the “public’s right to know,” which is guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Others argued that coverage of the Simpson trial would educate the American people on how the jurisprudence system works.

The most important argument against allowing cameras in the courtroom, is that the coverage may impact the trial itself and the defendant’s right to a fair trial. It is not easy to determine the effects of the live camera in the courtroom, but the acquittal of Simpson of all murder charges made it plain that it did not impact on his right to a fair trial.

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