“I don’t like it” isn’t the same as “You are factually inaccurate:” Four tips for when people say they’re going to sue you for something you wrote

I spent part of Wednesday afternoon on a conference call with students from Oshkosh North and the attorney for Hans Nelson, the school’s former vice principal. The story the North Star wrote about Nelson and his unceremonious transition from high school VP to a special-needs educator elsewhere in the district was at the crux of the whole censorship debacle last month.

In one of the articles on the Oshkosh North situation, Nelson’s lawyer, Charles Hertel, stated that the article was inaccurate and intimated a lawsuit might be forthcoming:

On Friday, Charles Hertel, a partner with the Dempsey Law Firm in Oshkosh, provided a statement to the Journal Sentinel on Nelson’s behalf. He called the article “factually false and defamatory.” He said Nelson is considering legal action against Doemel and possibly others.

“What he is doing is not privileged,” Hertel said.

The students, still pursuing a story to try to find out what happened to Nelson, were told via emailed letter that Hertel would speak for Nelson and that a call should be arranged. One of the students asked me to join, so I sat quietly for most of the call until at least the second time Hertel stated with certainty that the story was somehow false or inaccurate.

I asked Hertel to outline the factual inaccuracies, so the students could either correct the record or investigate this more clearly.

Hertel first stated that Nelson hadn’t been terminated. I asked the students if the story stated that. They said no. He then said Nelson hadn’t resigned. We quibbled over language a bit, noting that if he doesn’t have his previous position and he now has a different one, how could that be characterized as not resigning something?

After one more question, in which an inaccuracy did not emerge, Hertel noted he didn’t have the article right in front of him. He also said he didn’t think the students had a source (which, again, would not be an issue of factual inaccuracy). At that point, I suggested we move on.

This isn’t the first conversation I’ve had like this in my career as a reporter, editor and adviser, in which there seems to be a basic misunderstanding between the concepts of “I don’t like what you’re saying” and “What you are saying is factually inaccurate and libelous.” Since I spent much of my pro life on the crime beat, I had a number of people who were arrested or family members of the accused calling me to threaten lawsuits.

I vividly remember once having said the sentence, “Ma’am, it’s not our fault your son was involved in a shoot out at a Taco Bell Drive Thru.” This did not placate the woman, who continued to scream that our publication of the incident made her son (an adult) look bad. (I would argue it was the shooting he engaged in at the drive thru that made him look bad, but I figured she didn’t want to hear that.)

I took a call from a bounty hunter in Missouri, who was outraged that we wrote about his arrest. Police told us that he had spotted a person who was wanted for some outstanding traffic tickets, so the bounty hunter engaged in a high-speed chase that eventually flipped the suspect’s truck onto its roof. The truck came to rest on some active railroad tracks. If memory serves, the bond amount was no more than a couple hundred bucks. He, of course, threatened to sue us. It’s been about 20 years and I’ve yet to be served.

One guy who ran for the school board argued that we had factually misrepresented numerous things, including his military records. I remember being in a conference room with this guy, our head editor and the reporter who wrote the story. The guy had this giant binder of information that he said clearly outlined everything that was wrong. When the editor asked to see it, the man declined and said we’d see it in court and he didn’t want to talk to us (that despite the fact he was the one who requested the meeting). Again, I’m still waiting on that one to make the court dockets.

If you’re worried when someone says “I’m going to sue you,” you are completely normal. Legal stuff can get freakish and panic is easy when the word “lawyer” is bandied about. That said, here are four tips from the book that might help you when you are dealing with this:

  • Remain calm: Just like when you are in the field, a panicking reporter is a useless reporter in this situation. You need to realize that the threat of a lawsuit is just that: a threat. It is highly unlikely that the person will sue you at all, let alone sue you successfully. However, you should take every call or email like this seriously and keep your wits about you while you do.
  • Determine the problem: Just because someone doesn’t like something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they have grounds for legal action. The key thing is to determine what has upset this person so you can figure out your best course of action. For example, if a caller says something in the story is wrong, you can determine if there is a factual error or if the person just disagrees with a source in your story. This will help you see if you need to run a correction or if you need to explain how reporters gather information from sources.
  • Don’t make a promise you can’t keep: When a person is yelling at you on the phone about how you screwed something up, the “fight or flight” instinct can kick in pretty quickly. You might feel like the best way to get out of the situation is “flight,” where you apologize profusely for everything and assure the person everything will be fixed right away. This can lead you to make promises you can’t keep, such as changing a story, pulling something off the web or something else to make this person back off. In other cases, you might go into “fight” mode, where you push back at the caller with some anger of your own. This can further enrage the person and lead to even worse consequences if your publication eventually has to correct an error or apologize for a story. You probably won’t be the final arbiter of how your publication will deal with these situations, so don’t promise action when it’s not yours to promise. The only thing you should promise is that you will do your best to look into this and inform your superiors.
  • Get contact information: You will almost certainly need to do a bit of digging before you can solve any problem. Even if the problem isn’t yours to solve, you want to make sure you have the contact information from the person who raised the issue. With email, this is easy enough, as you can forward the complaint to the reporter involved in the story (if it’s not you) or to your editor and the person’s email address is right there. In the case of a phone call, make sure you get the person’s name and number so you or someone else at your office can get back to him or her as needed.



Leave a Reply