Ohio High Court Hears Debate in TV News Libel Case

(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 Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo via Wikipedia.)

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.  

Little argued that “constitutional rights do not change with changes in technology,” citing the standard set by the Ohio Supreme County in its 1987 decision in Lansdowne v Beacon Journal, which requires a private figure to prove that a media organization failed to act with reasonable care when it reported false and harmful information about that them. Little argued that standard should not be changed.

In response to a question from a justice about WBNS referring to the Anderson siblings as robbers, Little said the article needed to be taken in its totality rather than taking one statement in isolation.

When asked if WBNS should have issued a retraction after the siblings were eliminated as suspects, Little replied that it did not need to because if there was any error, it was with the police and their initial release of the photo naming them as suspects.

The attorney general’s office was given five minutes to present its arguments in favor of the trial court’s summary judgment as an amicus curiae. Deputy Solicitor Jason Manion stated that the office seeks to protect its right to solicit the public through the media for information, tips and identifications related to criminal investigations.

Justice Melody Stewart asked Manion if news media can just reprint whatever the police say, to which he replied no, but said the releases should be substantially accurate.

Representing the Anderson family, Sonia Walker of the Calig Law Firm argued that the Ohio Court of Appeals did not create a new standard, but found that WBNS defamed the Anderson siblings when it described them as robbers without investigating whether that word was accurate.

Walker argued that the “stronger duty” finding by the appeals court was not meant to change the 1987 Lansdowne standard, but rather to warn WBNS that claims made in the internet age, and the speed by which false statements are disseminated, means that the news media needs to be responsible and aware.

Walker also said the Andersons are not challenging the right of police to ask for information from the public through the media, nor are they arguing that a news organization doesn’t the right to report “credible source information,” but rather that WBNS made this particular story defamatory.

When asked, the attorney acknowledged that WBNS never used the names of the Anderson siblings but said the station showed their pictures, making them recognizable.

“We wouldn’t be here today” if the news outlet had called the siblings persons of interest rather than robbers, Walker said.

Walker said that although the term suspects is more loaded than persons of interest, anyone at the water park that day could have been considered a suspect. WBNS instead used the word robbers with the photo, making it clear they considered the siblings as robbers, she said.

In countering the argument that the article should be looked at in its totality, Walker said the rest of the story “does not temper or negate the claim” that the Andersons are robbers – “it bolsters it,” she said.

When asked if the news media should simply reprint a news release from a public entity, Walker said no, but reporters should be required to do some investigating.

A variety of news organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting WBNS, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Society for Professional Journalists, Ohio Association of Broadcasters, Ohio News Media Association, American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Media Editors.

They urged the state high court to uphold its 1987 Lansdowne standard and not require a reporter to “second-guess trusted sources such as public officials before publishing online.”

In addition to Walker, the Andersons are also represented by by J. Michael Nicks of the Jones Law Group, also in Columbus.

It is unclear when the court will issue a decision in the case.

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