Defamation, Slander and Libel: The Basics

Are you likely to win if you sue the media for defamation?

Libel and Slander
Getty Images/Chris Ryan

If you are a public figure or work in public relations, there may be times when people say incorrect and harmful things about you or a client, whether on TV, in print, or online. In these cases, you have the option to sue for defamation, slander, or libel. But from a public relations standpoint, doing so may not be a good idea.

The Difference Between Libel, Slander, and Defamation

Both libel and slander are false statements made about one person by another person.

Libel refers to a false statement made in writing, such as on a website or in a newspaper. Slander refers to a false statement that is spoken, rather than written. With the rise of the Internet, slander could also refer to a statement made during an online chat.

Defamation is a statement that damages the reputation of a person. Both libel and slander are forms of defamation.

Understanding the Law for Suing the Media 

When it comes to suing the media for libel, slander, or defamation, the responsibility rests with you to prove that:

  • A journalist or media outlet published something false about you.
  • That person acted deliberately and negligently.
  • The false statement caused you harm.

Published doesn’t have to mean the defamatory statement was printed in a newspaper. It can be said on a TV program, on the radio, on a social media platform, in a speech, or on a website. However the false statement is spread, it must be done intentionally.

Laws regarding suing the media differ depending on where you live. British law makes it easier to win defamation lawsuits. In the United States, it’s more difficult. The law also changes depending on whether you are a public or private figure.

Defamation When a Regular Citizen Is the Victim

If you’re a private citizen and the media reports something libelous or slanderous, there is a lower bar for collecting damages in court.

For example, Joe Smith is a plumber and has never been arrested. Somebody with a similar name—Joe Smyth—is arrested and accused of assaulting a police officer. A newspaper is careless and puts a story on the front page with the headline, “Joe Smith accused of assaulting state trooper,” along with a photo of Joe Smith the plumber.

In this case, the information the newspaper published is both false and damaging. Joe Smith's reputation is harmed, and his plumbing business will likely lose customers and revenue, even if the newspaper prints a correction. Therefore, if Joe Smith brings a lawsuit for libel, the newspaper would probably lose.

Defamation When a Public Figure Is the Victim

In the United States, the bar is set much higher when a public figure or celebrity has been wronged.

The 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times vs. Sullivan established that a public figure must prove that not only was a false statement published but that it was published with “actual malice.”

That means the person or media organization making the false statement knew or should have known it was false but published it anyway. They must have demonstrated “reckless disregard for the truth”—either a lack of fact-checking, or printing the false story in spite of knowing the facts.

This is a much higher standard to overcome, which makes it more difficult for public figures to win defamation lawsuits against the media.

In between public figures and private citizens is a category known as a “limited public figure.” This refers to a non-famous person who deliberately injects him or herself into a public debate or position. If you become a limited public figure, you lose some of the protections that you had when you were a private citizen, and winning a defamation lawsuit can become more difficult.

Is Suing for Libel or Slander a Good PR Move?

If you or your business are the victim of libel or slander, you should talk to a public relations expert in addition to speaking with a lawyer.

The negative publicity that accompanies defamation cases can often be more damaging for public figures than the initial false statement was. And since there is a high bar for proving libel or slander, you may not be able to win your lawsuit.

Even if you successfully pursue a lawsuit and are awarded damages, a drawn-out court case and any resulting bad press can still leave you facing negative public opinion.

To avoid this, your PR team may recommend that you have the issue mediated or resolved out of court, while you focus your resources on winning the support of public opinion instead of trying to win a court case.