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Defamed by the truth?

Post by Cheryl Tucker on July 6, 2009 at 7:24 pm |
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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