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Defamed by the truth?

Post by Cheryl Tucker on July 6, 2009 at 7:24 pm with 4 Comments »
July 6, 2009 7:24 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.


Truth is a valid defense

in man’s defamation case


Examine these two scenarios as if you were a reporter. How would you handle them?


&bull A popular entertainer dies under suspicious circumstances at a relatively young age. It is widely known, and in fact was testified to in a court case a few years before, that the star had a serious problem with prescription drugs. Do you mention that problem in your article about his death?


&bull A child disappears from her home while in the care of a baby sitter. In checking out the baby sitter’s background, you learn that she was convicted several years ago in a child abuse case in which a toddler she was caring for almost died. Do you mention that case?


It might turn out that the earlier problems of the entertainer and the baby sitter had no bearing on either scenario. If you mention those problems in your article, are you tarnishing the subjects’ reputations by reporting facts that might – or might not – eventually be found to be pertinent?


That question is at the center of an important First Amendment case in Pierce County Superior Court. If decided in favor of the plaintiff, it could have a chilling effect on reporting.


In reporting on a fatal November 2006 construction crane accident in Bellevue, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer detailed the extensive drug-related criminal past of the crane operator, former Tacoma resident Warren Yeakey.


The newspaper noted that Yeakey had undergone drug treatment after his last conviction in 2000, that the results of a drug test were not yet known and that the state doesn’t require drug testing of crane operators before they are hired.


But Yeakey later passed the drug test, and investigators cleared him of any responsibility. It was caused by a poorly designed foundation, and the engineering company that designed it and the general contractor on the project were fined.


Now Yeakey is suing the P-I and Hearst Communications Inc. for "defamation by implication," claiming that early coverage essentially seemed to blame him for the accident because of his drug history.


Should the newspaper not have reported what it had found out? What if investigators subsequently found that Yeakey had been using at the time of the accident – or even that he had had relapses in recent years? Would the newspaper have been criticized for withholding the information it had learned about the crane operator?


It is unfortunate that for a short time after the accident, Yeakey was under intense scrutiny for any role drugs might have played in it. After Yeakey was cleared, the newspaper wrote about it and told his personal success story. The measures the newspaper took effectively cleared his name.


The P-I reported uncomfortable truths about Yeakey’s past. And in defamation cases – which this is – truth is a defense. This case should not have gotten as far as it has.

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Leave a comment Comments → 4
  1. jimkingjr says:

    It is well past time that the media was held accountable for rumor- and scandal-mongering. There is “truth”- full of omissions, irrelevancies, and designed to create an impression- and then there is TRUTH. TRUTH should be an absolute defense. “Truth” should be closely examined and the media held tightly accountable. This case is a very good start.

    Next- why does the media think it should never be held to account? It is not some sacred profession, and its members should come back to earth.

  2. sandmanmj99 says:

    The “truth” is that the facts of the case were not known about when they reported on Mr Yeakey’s past drug problems. What the P-I did was publish information that they knew would twist public opinion and that might not be relevant in any way to what happened. Because they were desperate for any story they could find, they jumped on the drug use history of Mr Yeakey instead of waiting for the truth to be found out. They knew what they were doing and should be held accountable. No one would have shamed them for holding onto the information until all the facts were known. You say that this threatens how journalists report stories. I say true journalists don’t just report on one angle of a story, they report on all of them. If they don’t, they’re doing a disservice to your profession.

  3. logicmonster says:

    You make a valid point, and I’m sure the Heart Attorney’s arguments will sound similar to yours. If I were arguing Mr. Yeakey’s case my rebuttals would sound like this…

    The head line read “"Operator in crane wreck has a history of drug abuse," The intent of the headline is to implicate Mr. Yeakey without proof, without fact, and without regard to his reputation. The headline is sexy, it’s definitive, and it is damning, all by itself. It also helps sell newspapers. The PI could have made the headline “Officials Investigate Crane Disaster”, that would have been the truth as well. But it would not have been nearly as titillating. They could have mentioned Mr. Yeakey’s drug history in the body of the story as a possible avenue of investigation, and still not had the defamatory impact of a headline that screamed of his implied guilt. The headline packs power, and in this case the P.I. used that power recklessly not in the pursuit of truth, but rather in the pursuit of profit.

    …I actually hope that the P.I. loses this case. It will cause some consternation at respectable news rooms like yours, but it has the potential to violently upset the “news” rooms at such shady players at MSNBC and Fox News that regularly deal in rumor and innuendo. Those folks could get completely (and justifiably) crucified by the right kind of Yeakey v Hearst precedent.

  4. logicmonster says:

    Just to underscore my earlier point, you used these two scenario’s in your opinion piece…

    &bull A popular entertainer dies under suspicious circumstances at a relatively young age. It is widely known, and in fact was testified to in a court case a few years before, that the star had a serious problem with prescription drugs. Do you mention that problem in your article about his death?

    Sure, mention it in the article. But if the headline screams “Dead Star Over Dosed on drugs!” and the truth is that 6 years ago the star overdosed on drugs and lived through it, but no-one yet knows what caused his death, then the news outlet has gone over the line. What they reported was true, but the headline was specifically designed to be misleading.

    &bull A child disappears from her home while in the care of a baby sitter. In checking out the baby sitter’s background, you learn that she was convicted several years ago in a child abuse case in which a toddler she was caring for almost died. Do you mention that case?

    Mention? Yes. But if the headline screams “Dead child’s sitter abused child” then the headline writer has again taken two as-yet unconnected facts and sewn them together with an implied connection. It’s accurate, but it is still not true, and if it turns out that the sitter did not “disappear” the child, then the paper has done both the sitter and it’s customers a disservice.

    The race to be first with the news is really beating the crap out of the standards of accuracy.

    The movie “Absence of Malice” (1981 – Paul Newman (AA Best Actor Nomination) and Sally Field) comes to mind. It explores the differences between accuracy and truth. And is worth reviewing with respect to this issue.

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