(CN) – The Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday morning in a defamation lawsuit claiming a Columbus TV station wrongly named three siblings as robbers in an article about police asking the public for help identifying suspects in the crime.
The issues to be decided in Anderson v. WBNS include whether online news reporting has changed the standard for defamation of a private figure by the Ohio high court in 1987 and whether a news organization has a stronger duty to be accurate because stories on the internet can stay public forever.
The court must also decide if a news organization can be held liable when it changes the words used in a news release issued by a public official and those words are later found to be incorrect or false.
The case in question began with a robbery at a local water park in November 2015. The following January, Columbus Police issued a news release to local media asking for the public’s help identifying people in two photos taken from video surveillance at Fort Rapids Waterpark.
Police said the people in the photos may have been involved in the robbery. One photo was from the parking lot, with the suspects’ faces unclear. The other was taken from a hallway inside the waterpark, distinctly showing the faces of three people.
The news release went on to say the victims were walking in the parking lot while their daughter rode on a hoverboard when robbers approached the 8-year-old girl, put a gun to her head and demanded the hoverboard.
WBNS-TV, a local Columbus CBS affiliate, released the statement on its morning broadcasts and posted a story on its website and Facebook page. The headline read “Robbers Put Gun to Child’s Head and Steal Hoverboard,” with the photo from the hallway underneath the headline, showing the three unidentified people.
Nanita Williams recognized her three children from the photo. She took the children to police, where they explained they had gone the water park to deliver Thanksgiving dinner to a friend who was working.
After several hours of interviews, the three were cleared, and the police issued a second news release asking news media to discontinue use of the photo.
WBNS did not report further on the crime. The photo of the Andersons was removed from the website story and replaced with the less clear parking lot photo.
Williams and the father of the three children, Willie Anderson, sued WBNS for defamation in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, claiming the station falsely labeled the siblings in the photo as robbers.
WBNS argued that the family failed to prove the station acted negligently, as it relied on information from police that was found to be incorrect. The trial judge sided with WBNS, and the Andersons appealed.
The Ohio Court of Appeals ruled last year that the station had changed the police department’s statement when it called the people in the photo robbers rather than suspects. It also ruled that although WBNS had taken down the story from its webpage, the story can be found elsewhere on the internet and the media has “a stronger duty to research the facts” than it did pre-internet.
WBNS appealed that decision to the Ohio Supreme Court, and arguments were heard Wednesday morning in a special off-site session in Ashtabula County.
Attorney Marion Little with Zeiger Tigges & Little, representing WBNS, said the trial court’s ruling should be restored because the station was not negligent in its reporting under the under the current definition of negligence in Ohio.
He further argued that the state appeals court tried to set a new standard for news media when it stated outlets have a “stronger duty to research the facts,” while failing to define what a reporter must actually do to comply to this stronger duty.