Slander and Libel Laws
None of us like it when someone says or writes negative things about us, even if it is true. When it is not true, it can be even more harmful. Imagine if a story was written about you robbing a bank, even though you never did such a thing! It would harm your relationships with friends, family, co-workers, and even cost you your job.
What makes slander and libel so difficult, especially for public officials and public figures is that they have to prove an extra element of “actual malice.” Actual malice is extremely difficult to prove because you must prove that the person making the statement knew that the statement was not true, didn’t care whether it was true or not, and was reckless with the truth. Basically, you need to prove that the person making the statement was either negligent or intentionally making the false statement.
Regardless of whether there was “actual malice,” the damage is the same. A person’s reputation is the ruined. When it comes to the news media, the standards are supposed to be higher. Sources are supposed to be verified. If they are not, then it’s not “news”, but gossip and/or fiction writing.
Regardless of the victim’s standing as a public official, public figure, or private citizen, “actual malice” should not need to be proven. We need to hold news reporters to higher standard, not lower the standards. When news reporters know that publishing or airing a salacious story, about a public figure or public official, without verifying the facts could put them in legal jeopardy, they may think twice about reporting unproven, unverified stories.
The public has a right to know when our public officials and public figures have done something legally or morally wrong. However, when it is being reported by a “news” outlet (print, television, or online), they must be held to a higher standard so the public is being told facts, not rumors.
When I was growing up, there were supermarket tabloids (rumor mills, smut publications, which most people viewed as entertaining, but did not trust) and the nightly news (where we could get the verified facts about the world around us). Now, the nightly news (and 24 hour news channels) have become the supermarket tabloids and consumers don’t know what, or who, to believe and/or trust.
When we get back to trusting news sources which only report on verified stories, we can get back that trust in the press. Freedom of the press hinges on trust. That trust has been broken. Changing the slander and libel laws to make it easier for public officials and public figures to sue for salacious, unverified rumors, we can bring integrity back to the news media and the public arena. Then, we can start to mend the trust issues, so we can have a healthy society where the people trust the news media.
Removing the “actual malice” element to slander and libel claims, restores the public faith in news media and in our public officials and public figures. Society is built on trust and we need to restore trust and faith in our society. This is a start.
News Integrity Bill
Of all of our speech and press rights, none is more sacred than the “news”. This is the field that reports facts to the American people. This field is supposed to be based in facts and research, with few to no opinions and/or spin. This is the field of speech and press that “informs” the public. The field of “news” needs a high bar of integrity. But, in recent years that bar has fallen dramatically.
What provides trust and respect in any profession? Licensing is often the vehicle to respectability. Not only do we require doctors and lawyers to be licensed to practice their respective crafts, but we also require licenses to assist someone with their taxes, work on someone’s vehicle, do electrical work, or provide regular childcare for a friend. All of these fields, and more, require licensing. The licensing provides proof of proper training and a certain level of professionalism to be exhibited.
Requiring licensing for “news” professionals will raise the bar of professionalism, give the public more trust in the work product of our “news” professionals, and encourage quality reporting in an age where speed has replaced quality. Licensing will NOT limit the freedom of speech or the freedom of the press at all. Every reporter will still be able to write or report whatever he or she chooses. Let me explain.
Unlicensed Writer or Reporter
When a reporter writes a story (newspaper, magazine, online article, etc.), he or she must include the word “Opinion” at the beginning and end of the article. This alerts the reader to the fact that it is written by an unlicensed person. It merely gives the consumer additional information, just like the information on a nutritional label on food or a movie rating. It does not take away anything from what the writer has written. Instead, it added information to what was already written.
Licensed News Reporter
However, if the reporter is a “licensed news reporter”, the word “opinion” is replaced with a letter rating (A, B, C, D, or F). This letter rating corresponds with the percentage of named sources vs unnamed (anonymous) sources. An article with 10 sources mentioned, with 2 of those sources “anonymous”, would have 80% verified, named sources. That article would have a B rating. However, if that same article had 8 “anonymous” sources, it would have 20% verified, named sources and would have an F rating. This allows the reader to quickly be able to identify the stories that are more factually reliable vs the stories that are not as reliable.
The Rating System would be (percentage of verified, named sources):
A+ = 100%
A = 90 – 99.99%
B = 80 – 89.99%
C = 70 – 79.99%
D = 60 – 69.99%
F = 0 – 59.99%
The licensed news reporter would be required to maintain a C average among his or her most recent 100 “news” articles in order to maintain his or her license. The licensed news reporter would still be able to write opinion articles, as long as he or she used the “opinion” label instead of the rating. The “opinion” articles would not calculate into the reporter’s average. Only the “news” articles would be calculated.
If the reporter’s average falls below the C rating needed to maintain his or her license, the reporter would need to get additional training in factual reporting and bring his or her average up to a B rating (although those new articles or stories would be labeled “opinion” while the reporter’s license is suspended), in order to have his or her license reinstated.
This allows the consumer to be informed as to the veracity of the “news” being presented. The consumer gets to decide which reporters they believe, trust, and spend their time reading or watching. The consumer would also have the ability to “report” a reporter who is incorrectly rating his or her articles. When a reporter has been excessively “reported” to the licensing board, an investigation is opened into the reporter, which could result in disciplinary action, up to and including suspension of the license.
Additionally, “Licensed News Reporters” would be able to bargain for higher salaries due to the additional education, training, research, skills, and professionalism they bring to the paper, magazine, network, etc.
As for reporters and anchors on television or online videos, the same system would apply. The “opinion” label or the rating would just be in the ticker at the bottom of the screen. If the reporter or anchor is reporting on multiple stories, the ticker label would change as he or she moves from story to story. The same rules apply for the maintenance of license and to have a suspended license reinstated.
Raising the standards of professionalism in news reporting will be able to restore the faith and trust that the press once enjoyed, but in recent years has been squandered away in our rapid-fire technological reporting world. Restoring the consumers’ faith and trust in the press is imperative to maintaining a free and open press, and to the preservation of our great nation.