Legal alert: Avoid mid-stream reporting of unsettled disputes
Talented writers promoted into management roles may not be up to speed on possible legal snafus. In my VP/editorial director days, I ran periodic in-house workshops reviewing common oversights that could bring on battlefield conditions. The trap that invariably lands even some most experienced editors in hot water involves mid-stream reporting of unsettled disputes.
The glitch is simple enough to understand and should be included in every editorial manual. Namely, never report in-progress developments of legal dispute until the matter is settled by written court decree. There are many ways to go astray. For example, Party A in a bitterly contested makes a copy of the complaint available to the unsuspecting editor. The complaint alleges all sorts of misconduct by Party B plus the stiff penalties the defendant faces if convicted. Our editor proceeds to write a hot story headlining the news that B has been charged with a possible prison term plus big penalties. The editor mistakenly has treated the complaint as the final decision.
There is another common glitch that I’ve encountered more frequently in my consulting practice. This problem stems from the vexing habit of excerpting content from daily newspapers or business information websites. This hardly is a way of engaging in enterprise reporting. The trap from a legal standpoint occurs when the editor neglects an obligation to perform pre-publication fact-checking.
A final reminder pertains to a bad habit that definitely can land you, at the very least, in complaint territory pertains to misuse of “endorsement language.” This usually arises when a new product release from Manufacturer A is run virtually unedited. The published item includes alleged claims of superiority vs. Manufacturer B’s line. Or the release claims that A’s product is the only one on the market even though B, C and others provide comparable items. As a matter of policy, editors must strike a neutral tone in all copy written for a new products section.
All cautions pertaining to legal pitfalls such as the above should be incorporated into a written policy statement that is distributed to all editorial staff members.