What risks is the reporter taking?
A reporter is putting together a television news story about prostitution in a disreputable part of town. The reporter needs footage for the TV spot. In the evening, from behind the window of the reporters van, the reporter films a group of three women who appear to be soliciting. The reporter puts the footage together with a voice over that suggests the women depicted are prostitutes and send it off for airing.
The reporter in this case is putting him or herself in danger of being sued for defamation. If any one of the women who has been filmed is not, in fact, a prostitute, the reporter may well be liable.
Defamation occurs when a person speaks or otherwise disseminates false information about another person that is likely to do harm to the reputation of that person. Clearly, that could be the case in this situation. Calling a woman a prostitute is an act that could easily harm her reputation and cause her problems in her personal and/or professional life. If a woman is falsely identified as a prostitute, she has likely been defamed.
There are a number of defenses against defamation, but none of them fit this case.
- Truth. Telling the truth can never be defamation. If the women are prostitutes, there is no problem. But if one or more of them is not a prostitute, the truth defense is no longer feasible.
- Accident. Clearly, the reporter has not broadcast this information by accident. Therefore, the reporter cannot use this defense.
- Consent. The women have presumably not consented to have their images broadcast in a story about prostitution. Therefore, the reporter cannot use this defense.
- Privilege. Reporters cannot be sued for reporting what is said in official proceedings such as trials. However, there is no way in which this broadcast fits this description.
- Fair comment and criticism. Reporters may give their opinions about public figures. However, the women are not public figures and there is no reason for the reporter to be commenting on them.
Thus, it seems that the reporter is likely to be in danger of a defamation suit.