Libel charges are not exactly happy events for everybody involved in the yearbook publishing process – and for good reasons, too. Aside from the time, energy and money spent on the legal process, the possibility of jail time and monetary penalties arising from a libel conviction are unpleasant, to say the least.
Every staff member on the yearbook committee must then be vigilant about the libel red flags on the drafts of the high school yearbook. Indeed, it pays to be extraordinarily cautious about the words, photos and images that will be printed on the yearbook lest future complications arise. Here are a few examples of libel red flags that young journalists and their mentors should look out for.
Disguising the Identity of the Subject
As with mainstream journalism, the kind of journalism practiced during the yearbook publishing process is also subject to this red flag. Keep in mind that disguising a person’s identity by using false names is not a valid reason to avoid charges of libel because it is possible to identify a person based on description alone. This is especially true in a high school yearbook where most, if not all, events during the school year are general knowledge – or at least, an individual can still affirm or deny the statements made.
Yet another danger of disguising the identity of a particular subject on yearbooks is that a third party can be affected. Said third party may have nothing to do with the matter in question and yet because everybody can assume the worst, his/her reputation can also be wrongfully harmed.
The solution: Stop using fake identities, making up blind items and disguising the subjects of stories. It is best to include the stories that put people in a good light because that’s what yearbooks should ideally be. Besides, you will lose credibility as a campus journalist if and when you use these tactics for the high school yearbook.
Assigning Negative Traits to an Entire Group
During the yearbook publishing process, the committee will come across juicy stories involving groups such as athletes, cheerleaders and club members that seem too good to be passed up for publication. Our suggestion: Don’t publish stories that assign negative traits to an entire group.
For example, your sports reporter submitted an article with allegations that the basketball team lost a crucial game because the players were out drinking the night before the game. Any member of the basketball team who felt wronged by such an allegation can successfully sue for libel. This is true for harmful allegations like engaging in illegal activities, too.
The solution: It is better to name names during the yearbook publishing process. But be careful about the statements, too, as these can prove potentially libelous. The adage about not saying anything if you cannot say anything nice is as true in yearbooks as it is in real life.
Implicating Harmful Traits to an Individual
This can be categorized into statements that imply:
• Inappropriate sexual conduct
• Affliction of a vile disease
• Allegations of illegal behavior
• Accusations that hurt the livelihood of the subject (i.e., teacher)
• Charges of racism as well as religious bigotry.
Indeed, it is great to have fun during the yearbook publishing process but have fun in a way that will not land the committee in legal hot water!