The expense of a libel suit may be avoided with proper handling of any complaints about the published story. As a rule of thumb, treat every complaint as a preliminary step to the filing of a libel suit and every response to the complainant as possible evidence to be used against the newspaper.
1. Oral Complaints: An angry phone call or hallway confrontation may be nothing more than the complainant "venting his spleen." Don't take the complaint as personal criticism, and do not aggravate the situation by arguing. If you wrote or edited the story, it may be preferable to route the call to a senior editor specifically charged with promptly responding to complaints. In any case,
(a) Listen carefully and take notes. The complainant's statements may also be used as evidence against him or her if a suit is filed.2. Written Complaints: These should be routed to the editor and the lawyer immediately. Even if an error is apparent, the treatment of the error may be important in avoiding a lawsuit and should be decided upon with legal counsel.
(b) Assure the person in a general way that it is the newspaper's policy to correct factual errors. Do not commit, either expressly or by implication, to running a correction before the matter has been reviewed.
(c) Do not admit to error at this point. Do not say, "I never intended it that way." This amounts to an admission that the impression of the story is false.
(d) Do not be drawn into a discussion with the potential plaintiff's lawyer, even if you have had cordial dealings with him or her in the course of preparing the story. At this stage, any complaint must be treated as a threat of litigation, and the lawyer should be speaking to the newspaper's lawyers. He or she should understand if you politely refuse on that basis.
(e) Make a brief memo of the conversation with as much detail as you can recall, and pass it on to your editor. What may seem irrelevant at the time may be critical at a later stage.
3. Retractions or Corrections: Where a correction seems warranted by the complaint, care should be taken not to aggravate the situation by creating a false impression from the correction itself. Consider whether a correction should be run without the consent of the subject. This does not mean the complainant should dictate the language, but you should at least consider whether he or she will object to having the subject raised again in the form of a correction.
Recognize that, in some cases, retractions or corrections can be a valuable negotiating tool in securing a binding release or agreement not to sue from the complainant. If a lawsuit is threatened or seems likely, the newspaper's lawyer should therefore be consulted even where the correction seems fully justified.
4. Reporters' Notes: If a complaint is received, reporters' notes relating to the story in question should be compiled and safeguarded. If a lawsuit seems imminent, the editor might forward them to the newspaper's lawyers. Destruction of notes may do more harm than good and might, under some circumstances, even constitute contempt of court. In many cases, the notes may provide the best evidence of "reasonable care' in preparation of the story.
BACK TO TABLE OF CONTENTS: PART III