Push to pass Uniform Corrections Act p.18

By: Joe Strupp Printing corrections in papers reduces libel, yet only one state uses it

A proposed law that would entice newspapers to print corrections by reducing their exposure to libel lawsuits has been enacted in only one state since being introduced more than four years ago. But supporters of the Uniform Corrections Act claim that may soon change and plan to make a major push for passage in several states in 1999.
"We are working and we are very optimistic," says Edward Seaton, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) and publisher of The Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury. "Like any legislation, it takes time to get things through."
Citing a need to enact the law in at least six states this year, ASNE leaders have made its passage a key priority in the coming months and have hired a lobbyist to help drum up support in several states.
The legislation would promote the use of newspaper corrections by protecting newspapers from libel suits if they print corrections in a timely manner, supporters say. The goal is to change the perception of corrections as an admission of guilt, a belief that often causes editors to hold off on printing them for fear that they may be used in future legal action.
The act first came forward in 1993 from the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, a group of legal experts appointed by state officials to study and create state laws with uniform standards. The commission adopted the act in late 1993, and it received the American Bar Association's endorsement six months later.
But since January 1995, when the legislation first went before several state lawmakers, only North Dakota has made it law. Seaton and other supporters blame the poor record of approval on a lack of information for legislators and the failure of industry leaders to make it a priority.
"The approach we have taken is to leave it up to the states and not push it," says Seaton. "It certainly has been less [successful] than we would have wanted."
Seaton says ASNE is using a Virginia lobbyist to help get the proposal through at least six states this year. Attorney Tonda Rush of King and Ballow, which has helped several newspapers in sensitive Guild negotiations over the years, was hired last May to lobby state officials in specific areas such as Texas, Illinois, and Michigan.
Rush says the key is to educate legislators and newspaper officials and rally support in each state at the grass-roots level. She plans to organize informational programs and lobbying efforts in several states during the 1999 state legislative sessions.
"It is not easy to do. You have to convince the legislatures that it is worth doing," says Rush. "Some editors don't understand what [the act] does. They think it will require retractions, which it doesn't."
Specifically, the act would require that anyone seeking a correction should inform the newspaper, online service, or other media outlet of the alleged inaccuracy within three months of the date it was printed or broadcast. After receiving the request, the news outlet would have 45 days to investigate and broadcast or print a correction.
If a correction is printed within that time frame and reaches "substantially the same audience" as the original inaccurate report, the news outlet would be protected from loss-of-reputation or punitive damages, which often carry the largest monetary awards.
The act was recently introduced in the New York state legislature and is expected to be presented to state lawmakers in New Mexico later this spring, says Rush. She contends that if even a half-dozen states adopt the bill, it will be seen as a victory.
"What is important is that a few states pass it unamended so it can go forward uniformly," says Rush. "Then we can have everyone focus on the same thing."
Rush says the proposal must be enacted at the state level because libel laws are based on state legislation and do not come under federal control. She also says that, although more than 30 states have existing corrections statutes, many are outdated and vary from state to state.
While the proposal has brought widespread support from news organizations such as Afro-American Newspapers, Gannett Co. Inc., and The Washington Post, it has some detractors.
Critics, such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, worry that the law may push editors to print corrections too quickly.
"One of the components of credibility is standing by a story that you believe to be true, even in the face of opposition," says Jane Kirtley, the committee's executive director and a former reporter. "The idea that you can make a lawsuit go away by printing a retraction is troubling."
Kirtley also questions whether the act would substantially reduce libel possibilities. She says many other factors, such as motive and sourcing, go into deciding whether libel has been committed
But supporters, such as libel attorney Dick Winfield, who has represented The Associated Press and other news outlets, say the act would help newspapers avoid costly lawsuits by focusing on getting the story right instead of legal bickering.
"This represents a major reform of the process that will bring down the cost of lawsuits and jury awards and is an unparalleled benefit," Winfield says. "News organizations, publishers, editors, and their lawyers at the local level have got to organize and raise money to lobby legislators to pass this bill."
The Society of Professional Journalists also supported the effort but cautioned ASNE supporters not to let state legislators change the act in order to get it adopted.
"Lawmakers are probably going to be tempted to modify it. That is how it can get dangerous," says SPJ president Wendy S. Myers. "Whenever lawmakers tinker with the uniformity, that is when you have problems. That is something that needs to be monitored."
"We are very optimistic. Like any legislation, it takes time."

?(? Edward Seaton, president, American Society of Newspaper Editors) [Caption]
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site: http:www.mediainfo.com) [caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher February 6,) [caption]


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

Scroll the Latest Job Opportunities From The Media Job Board