School of Journalism

UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI-COLUMBIA



                        KKBT-TV AND A CASE OF LIBEL



                     A reporter and editor's nightmare



     The tone of the sheriff's dispatcher on the police scanner was

matter-of-fact, but the message caused the KKBT-TV news team to

leave their lunches unfinished.



     ...Unit 17 reports what appears to be a homicide in the

     village of Centerville...It looks as if a woman shot her

     husband at point blank range...



     After a high-speed, 30-minute drive to the small town of

Centerville and some hurried questioning at the scene, Trish Lang,

a 26-year-old KKBT-TV reporter of modest experience, began a taped

report from the sidewalk in front of the house where the alleged

murder took place. Lang explained how 28-year-old, 5'4" Mary Dawson

took a shotgun and repeatedly fired at her 34-year-old, 6'6"

husband, Peter. She said that sheriff's deputies discovered Peter

Dawson's body, his head smashed by shotgun pellets into nearly

unidentifiable pieces.

     In her report, Lang talked directly to the camera until she

began describing the neighborhood. Then, as she noted that it was

"middle class," the reporter turned. The camera followed her gaze

to two houses next to the Dawson's and almost directly behind Lang.

As the description of the neighborhood continued, a woman standing

on the porch of the farthest house came into the camera's view.

Seemingly curious about the TV crew, the woman left the porch and

started forward in what appeared to be an effort to see better what

was happening. Noting this, Lang called the woman over, asked her

name, and inquired if she lived in the nearby house.



     "Yes, I'm Margrette Smithe. I live in that house."



     Lang asked Smithe for her reaction to the killing.



     "I'm not surprised. Those people (pointing to the house of the

murder victim) and the people next door, the Pattersons, are heavy

into drugs; they use them and deal them. Mary Dawson must have

feared for her life, as she often did when Peter was doped up. He

would hit Mary; you could hear it at my house. I suspect Mary was

trying to defend herself, or she just had enough and killed him."

     Showing only mild surprise at these comments, Lang asked if

Smithe was sure that there were drugs involved.

     "You bet," came the swift reply. "Both the Dawsons and the

Pattersons use them."

     At that moment, the cameraman saw a figure at the window of

the house that Smithe had just identified as the Patterson's. Using

his zoom lens, the cameraman faded the picture of Lang and Smithe

and zoomed in on the figure in the window. Catching notice of the

movement of someone in the window, Lang asked Smithe if the

Pattersons lived in the house where the man, presumably Mr.

Patterson, was standing at the window.

     "Yes," was the neighbor's reply.

     Trish Lang's report aired that evening, and the next day the

promotion and advertising departments of KKBT-TV used a clip from

it in a promo that said, in part:

     "...KKBT-TV is first with the news. You can rely on KKBT-TV,

as the village of Centerville did yesterday when we brought you the

first report on a murder that may be tied to drug use."

     The next day, two lawsuits were filed against the station, its

news team, each of KKBT-TV's executives, its owners, and Margrette

Smithe.

     One of the suits came from Mary Dawson. Her complaint alleged

that she shot her husband in self-defense, that no charges were

pending against her for the shooting, and that neither she nor her

deceased husband had ever been involved with drugs. An even larger

suit was filed by the Pattersons. They asked for $1 million in

actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages for libel,

invasion of privacy, and infringement of their civil rights.

     In subsequent depositions, it was determined that when Lang

joined the station, she received a booklet that was given to every

reporter and news executive in which KKBT-TV's policies on libel

and invasion of privacy were outlined. The booklet warned against

airing unsubstantiated charges against one person by another. At

great length, the booklet defined and explained the difference

between invasion of privacy and libel. It said that invasion of

privacy required even more care and caution than libel, as privacy

had yet to be clearly defined by either the courts or the state

legislature. It also noted the substantial legal distinction

between the invasion of a public and a private person's privacy and

between public and private places.

     Most important, the policy statement said that before any

questionable material was broadcast, it should be referred to

KKBT-TV's news director and, if questions remained, to the station

manager.                            

     Other than the booklet, which Lang said was part of an

employee information kit given to her on her first day on the job,

she had received no further training on these subjects. Moreover,

her cameraman did not recall seeing KKBT-TV's booklet on libel or

invasion of privacy. He also said that he had never discussed these

matters with anyone at the station.

     In his deposition, the news director confirmed that no members

of the station's news teams except the reporters were briefed on

legal matters. He also verified that he had reviewed the footage

from the Dawson murder, that he was "taken by its dramatic effect,"

and that he believed it could be taken as true since one could

"assume that as a neighbor of the Pattersons and the Dawsons,

Margrette Smithe knew what was happening next door." He also

admitted that he aired the Lang report without discussing it with

the head of thc station.

     In his statement, the general manager also revealed that no

one from the station checked with police authorities, the district

attorney, or other law enforcement officials to see if the

allegations of drug use against either the Dawsons or the

Pattersons were part of a public record or could be substantiated.

     In its defense, KKBT-TV offered expert testimony by a law

professor who said that the man in the window -- who was, indeed,

Mark Patterson -- was a public person. The profcssor claimed that

at the time of the filming of Lang's story, Patterson chose to

thrust himself into the public arena by showing himself through the

window when it was obvious that a TV crew was reporting from the

sidewalk in front of his home. The professor further contended that

Mark Patterson was a public figure by virtue of his position as a

school tcacher and well-known high school basketball coach in the

community.

     When he was questioned a second time, the KKBT-TV cameraman

acknowledged that a high-power zoom lens was necessary to make Mark

Patterson discernible from the street where Lang was conducting her

interview with Margrette Smithe. The cameraman said that if he had

not used such a lens, the viewer would not have known that it was

Patterson in the window.



                                ASSIGNMENT



KKBT-TV is a station in a lower middle-size market in a town of

50,000. You are KKBT-TV's general manager. Please provide the

station's owners the following:



1.   A short-term response to the lawsuits and the events. It

     should focus on:



     a.   What are the options available to the station? (Remember,

          the actions the station takes will depend on how strong

          you think the station's position is.)



     b.   Your response should also focus on what actions are

          appropriate vis-a-vis the employees involved in the

          incident.



     c.   Further, it should assess the damage to the station's

          reputation. (If it has been damaged, are there steps you

          can take to diffuse its impact, and what should those

          steps be?)



     d.   What about steps to correct or retract the story? Also,

          what would a correction or retraction imply in the

          pending legal proceedings?



     e.   Other than station management and the involved employees,

          who needs to be involved in decisions regarding these

          matters? And how are the people or organizations who

          should be involved best communicated with, and on what

          level? 



     f.   What other things should be included in a meaningful

          station manager's short term response? Why should the

          items you've noted be included, and how would you respond

          to them?





2.   Next, please provide a long term response to prevent such a

     situation from happening again. It should include plans for:



     a.   Personnel (training, hiring practices, disciplinary

          measures, involvement in establishing policies)



     b.   Finances (insurance rates, cost of implementing training,

          legal fees)



     c.   Technology (How do increasingly advanced technologies

          impact on policies?)



     d.   Information/communication (Does the decision making

          procedure meet the needs of the station? What about

          insurance, legal services, informing employees of

          policies, and keeping employees up-to-date on changes in

          the law?)



     e.   Time (When do you implement the policies? How do you keep

          them current? What part of their workload do employees

          sacrifice to attend training sessions?)



     f.   Station credibility (Is a strategy needed to counter the

          negative effects of a libel case on the public's image of

          the station? What should it be?)







Again, what else should be considered? Why are these additional

items important, and how should the station respond to them?

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