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Why Do Journalists Use Words Like 'Claimed' and 'Alleged'?

By Ashley Ravid on August 24, 2020

Have you ever read a news article about an "alleged" crime or event and wondered why it sounds like even the writer of the piece wasn't sure what happened? This isn't just because journalists are hurrying to be the first to break a story: It's actually to prevent a libel lawsuit.

What exactly is libel, and why does it have such a big impact on the words that reporters use?

Libel Law Overview

There are several elements to lawsuits for libel (which is written) and slander (which is spoken). Defamation refers to the damage done to a person's business or reputation because of the untrue statement.

Libel suits consist of several parts, and the burden of proof falls on the plaintiff. Truth is an absolute defense to libel. So long as a publication reports indisputable facts, a case against these reports will not succeed.

However, it is often challenging to corroborate every detail of a newsworthy event, especially because sources can lie or misremember what happened. If a journalist does not verify these details and publishes a defamatory falsehood, they — or their employer — may be liable in a libel suit.

If the journalist cannot confirm the details of a story absolutely, most news outlets will use terms like "alleged" or state only that eyewitnesses "claimed" a certain thing happened to avoid a lawsuit. This is why you may read about an "alleged" robber instead of a robber awaiting trial — the term "alleged" will not be dropped unless this person is found guilty of the crime in a court of law.

Vague language doesn't mean that a journalist or news outlet is just reporting random allegations to you; they're likely covering their bases and protecting themselves from legal action.

What About Free Speech?

You may be wondering how an op-ed you've read got published if libel is such a big concern. Generally, if something is clearly an opinion rather than an implication of fact, a publisher should be in the clear.

Journalists in the United States have the additional advantage of a constitutionally guaranteed right to the free press. One of the most important Supreme Court rulings ever in favor of the free press is a libel suit, best known as New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964).

In that case, the Court established a precedent in which public figures had to prove actual malice in defamation suits. This means that they must prove that the publication knowingly published a false statement or acted with reckless disregard for the truth. For non-public figures, the threshold for proof of libel is negligence rather than actual malice.

Though the definition of what constitutes a "public figure" may be up for debate, the New York Times case is considered a major victory for journalistic rights. Having a different standard for pubic and private figures allows the press greater ability to scrutinize government figures or others in the public eye.

Libel laws are often complicated, though, and some states have more specific laws on defamation. If you or someone you know is involved in a slander or libel case, a defamation lawyer may be able to help you navigate your options.

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