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What risks are you taking by airing secretly taken footage of women who are...

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What risks are you taking by airing secretly taken footage of women who are suggestively identified as prostitutes?

You are putting together a television news story about prostitution in a disreputable part of town. You need footage for the TV spot. In the evening, from behind the window of your van, you film a group of three women who appear to be soliciting. You put the footage together with a voiceover that suggests the women depicted are prostitutes and send it off for airing. 

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In this case, you are taking the risk of being sued for defamation.  If one or more of those women is not a prostitute, you might be liable for damages.

Defamation is what happens when a person spreads false information about another person that is likely to hurt the second person’s reputation.  That is clearly the case in this scenario because saying a woman is a prostitute could clearly hurt her reputation.  It could cause her trouble at her work.  It could cause problems in her personal life.  If you are falsely saying she is a prostitute, you are probably defaming her.

There are ways to defend yourself against a defamation suit, but none of them seem to be viable in this case.  The defenses are:

  • Truth.  You can’t defame someone by telling the truth about them.  But if the individual woman who sues you is not a prostitute, you will not be able to use this defense.
  • Accident.  If you accidentally spread a false rumor, you aren’t liable for defamation.  However, broadcasting a news story is hardly an accident so this defense isn’t much use.
  • Consent.  If you got the women’s consent, you couldn’t be sued.  But it is unlikely that you did get their consent.
  • Privilege.  If you’re just reporting what is said in some official proceeding like a trial or public meeting, you can’t be sued.  But that’s not the case here.
  • Fair comment and criticism.  Reporters can’t be sued for giving their opinions about public figures.  But these women aren’t public figures.

So, if the language you used in the broadcast clearly implied these women were prostitutes, you are at risk of being sued (and losing) for defamation.

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