Legal Alert: Three Ways to Keep Out of Trouble

By Howard Rauch

Occasionally we need to remember that there is life beyond websites and digital issues. Basic editing snafus — especially those of a legal nature — can land us in hot water. Even experienced editors fall into an occasional trap involving libel or some other snag. Here are three reminders worth including in your editorial manual if you have one … or in a policy statement distributed to all staff members.

1. Avoid midstream reporting of undecided legal disputes. For example, the fact someone is charged with committing a crime or otherwise violating a regulation doesn’t mean the accused will be found guilty. In my editorial director days, I dealt with several situations where an editor interviewed the plaintiff in a dispute while the case was still in progress. The interviewee took some serious pot shots at the defendant’s character. If the article made it into print, we would have been up the creek. However, we had a policy that all articles of an inflammatory nature had to be cleared by a member of top management. That policy kept us out of trouble.

A variation on this theme is that X, one party to a dispute, issues a press release announcing intent to sue Y. The release includes a description of stiff penalties Y would incur if found guilty. You publish that information at your peril. Instead, wait until the case is settled. Meanwhile, obtain a copy of the complaint as a way of verifying the accuracy of the information contained in X’s press release.

2. Fact-check information excerpted from other media before it gets printed. If certain details are misleading or totally inaccurate, you may end up on the wrong side of a complaint. The fact that the excerpted material did not originate with you is no defense. In my consulting practice, I constantly needle editors who frequently use excerpted material in news sections. The better practice is to use, say, a newspaper article as a lead only. Then develop your own exclusive slant by following up with sources cited. Most likely, you know the parties quoted in the original story. If not, now you have an opportunity to make a new contact.

A variation on the above theme occurs when editors routinely reprint information from websites without obtaining clearance to do so. Remember that copyright privileges apply. Aggrieved parties are within their rights to make your life miserable.

3. Beware of using “endorsement language.” At the very least, resulting infractions will haunt you forever with important contacts. In this case, typical goofs occur in the way we edit (or don’t edit) new product announcements. I’m sure you know the drill. A product announcement lands on your desk filled with glowing descriptions of an item’s value to your readers. Experienced editors assume a “glow must go” position and routinely red-pencil all the puffy stuff. But from what I’ve seen, this is not real life at every publication. Among the glitches that sneak through are statements alleging that product X is better than all competitors. Or the announcement will claim that the product is the only one of its kind out there … or the first one in its field. You had better verify that competitive claims are true. If you can’t do that, please have a policy in place describing how to field complaints from competitors who have a legitimate beef.

Howard Rauch is president of Editorial Solutions Inc., a consultancy focusing on B2B magazines. Rauch is the 2002 recipient of ASBPE’s Lifetime Achievement Award. You can contact him directly at howard@editsol.com.

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