Libel and Slander

One of the best aspects of producing portable video is that a large number of people might see your work.

In fact, when you are on location, some people might even see it while you are shooting. This exposure is a blessing for videomakers in added recognition, and the high profile can also be a blessing through higher ratings, more sales, a larger corporate budget, and so on. But with the two rewards of exposure and money can come some very substantial problems regarding the law, ethics, copyright, and insurance. For those who plan to produce video programs or segments, basic knowledge of how to protect yourself from legal and ethical entanglements and your material from being stolen or misused is as necessary as any shooting or editing techniques.

LAWS

Most videographers encounter two major areas of the law: the right to privacy and the right of ownership, or copyright. The former is the most common problem in electronic news gathering (ENG) and the latter in electronic field production (EFP). Either issue can certainly create more trouble than you would suspect. The safest thing to do before shooting anything, whether news documentary, or narrative, is to be sure not only of your rights but also of the rights of everyone and everything that appears in your video or has anything to do with it. This sounds complex, but the level of complexity is somewhat a function of the amount of money involved. A student project seen only by a class or school can do many things that a multimillion-dollar network TV show could never dream of doing without having every legal "i" dotted.

Defamation: Libel and Slander
A major concern of all ENG and EFP production is defamation of character. Defamation occurs when a person is wrongfully portrayed in a negative way so that his or her good name and reputation are harmed. Defamation is usually divided into two categories. The first is libel, defined as defamation through recorded means. Libel law stems from the practices of early print media and gives some protectkn to citizens against journalists or other writers simply publishing words that harm their reputations. Libel law has since been extended beyond the "printed word" to include the "recorded word." The electronic media are subject to the same laws as the print media regarding libel.

The idea is that, whether published printed vords or broadcast recorded words, the journalist has time to consider how the subject of a story is being portrayed. The story is constructed with forethought; there are options regarding how to portray the subject. If that subject is falsely portrayed in a harmful light, whether on television, radio, the Internet, or in a newspaper or magazine or pamphlet the author (writer, producer, etc.) and the news organization may have libel charges brought against them.

For example, in 1981 the entertainer Carol Burnett sued the tabloid magazine The National Enquirer.The magazine published a story indicating that she was publicly drunk. She was not. While this particular magazine is not considered to be journalistic, but rather a tabloid not to be taken seriously, Ms. Burnett sued because the story hit too close to home. Her parents suffered from a history of alcoholism—a history that she had broken— and she felt the magazine had gone too far. While simple inaccuracies occur from time to time, and can be overlooked or corrected with an apology, this incorrect information hurt Ms. Burnett's good name and reputation, and she believed the magazine needed to be held accountable. Ms. Burnett won the lawsuit and donated the money to two universities to help teach aspiring news reporters about the dangers of defamation.

The second category of defamation is slander, defined as defamation through spoken words. Slander is not considered as harmful as libel. Libel is more serious because it involves time and thought: The reporter deliberately writes or records harmful words about the subject. In contrast, slander occurs without much thought or deliberation. A person might say something harmful on the spur of the moment, but the words are not necessarily carefully chosen nor knowingly intended to be part of a permanent record, such as a newspaper or television broadcast.

For example, in 2005 during a live NBC telecast to raise funds for relief efforts for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, singer Kanye West suddenly stated, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." This statement was considered merely slanderous, not libelous. West, together with actor Mike Myers, was reading a script from an electronic prompter. The script contained no wrongful or harmful words against the President (if it had, that could have been considered libel). The rapper went off script to make his assertion. Moreover, the telecast was live, so the producer could not have been expected to delete the statement. For these reasons, the rapper's unexpected opinion was considered slanderous but not libelous. The President chose not to bring charges against the rapper (perhaps because presidents are always subject to people's outbursts of opinion). West later famously took the microphone from singer Taylor Swift at the 2009 MW Video Music Awards, again an impulsive act
that resulted in no actual harm and for which he apologized.

Next Month: Privacy vs. the Right to Know