Essential Defamation Concepts TV Producers Need to Know

 

#1

Don’t Lie!

Defamation is a FALSE factual statement that damages a person’s or company’s reputation. For producers of non-fiction programs, the best way to protect yourself from a defamation lawsuit is to make sure the material in your program is TRUE.  It must be literally true and the overall message communicated to the audience must be true. For producers of fictional programs, the best way to protect yourself from a defamation lawsuit is to invent your characters. Don’t base them on actual living people.

#1A

Don’t Lie Like This, Don’t Lie Like That

False statements can seep into your programs in various ways. Keep these tips in mind:

Don’t Lie By Leaving Out Important Facts aka Defamation by Omission

You can be successfully sued for defamation even if everything you’ve said is true, but you’ve left the audience with a false impression by leaving out important facts. You may not want to believe it, but defamation by omission or implication is a thing!

Example:  A host on an entertainment news program says the following while reporting on the Golden Globe Awards: I can’t believe party-boy actor ‘Joe Blow’ gave ‘Charlotte Starlet’ something to put up her nose. That report is literally true. But, you still might hear from Mr. Blow’s and Ms. Du Jour’s lawyers if you leave out a key material fact — Joe gave poor, asthmatic Charlotte an inhaler.

Don’t Lie by Creating Misleading Reputation-Damaging Teases or Promos

Yes, on behalf of all lawyers, we understand that the point of a tease is to leave the audience wondering. That’s fine.  Just make sure that the audience is not left with a false impression that could damage someone’s reputation, particularly if there is a relatively long time between the tease and the reveal.

Example:  There is a significant difference in the example of Joe and Charlotte if the host immediately says – “I’m just kidding, he gave her an inhaler” — and a situation in which the “reveal” doesn’t occur until the end of the broadcast.

Don’t Lie In Your Audio About Someone Who Appears in B-Roll Footage

If your voice-over is about prostitution, drug dealers and puppy killers, make sure the footage that accompanies the voice-over is of a puppy-killing, drug-dealing hooker.

Example: A woman successfully sued ABC for defamation because ABC showed footage of her walking in her neighborhood with a voice-over report about prostitution.

Don’t Forget to Update Your Information: What Was True Yesterday, Might be Defamatory Today

If you previously reported on an arrest, but you now know all charges subsequently were dropped, don’t mention the arrest unless you also mention the result.

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About The Author

TV Juriste
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Harvard-trained attorney and long-time TV super fan, Terri James (TV Juriste) has worked at E!, NBCUniversal, BBC and for a TV personality, for television shows including, E! News, The Daily Ten, Live From the Red Carpet, Life in the Fab Lane, The Soup, Americans in Bed, Chicago PD, and Royal Pains, among others.Terri's All-Time Favorite TV Shows: The Wire, Seinfeld, Colbert Report, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sex and the City, 30 Rock, SNL, Homeland (first season), Breaking Bad (final season), My So Called Life, Meet the Press (Tim Russert Years), and Lil Bush.

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  • Cynthia Close

    This is tricky – trying not to lie when you’re writing fiction – because you are in a sense. You’re making things up. What if someone thinks they recognize themselves in your story or script. Would it just depend on how many details actually matched their real life circumstances? I can see people suing about all kinds of implied slights and insults that weren’t intended.

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