School of Journalism
UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI-COLUMBIA
KKBT-TV AND A CASE OF LIBEL
A reporter and editor's nightmare
The tone of the sheriff's dispatcher on the police scanner was
matter-of-fact, but the message caused the KKBT-TV news team to
leave their lunches unfinished.
...Unit 17 reports what appears to be a homicide in the
village of Centerville...It looks as if a woman shot her
husband at point blank range...
After a high-speed, 30-minute drive to the small town of
Centerville and some hurried questioning at the scene, Trish Lang,
a 26-year-old KKBT-TV reporter of modest experience, began a taped
report from the sidewalk in front of the house where the alleged
murder took place. Lang explained how 28-year-old, 5'4" Mary Dawson
took a shotgun and repeatedly fired at her 34-year-old, 6'6"
husband, Peter. She said that sheriff's deputies discovered Peter
Dawson's body, his head smashed by shotgun pellets into nearly
In her report, Lang talked directly to the camera until she
began describing the neighborhood. Then, as she noted that it was
"middle class," the reporter turned. The camera followed her gaze
to two houses next to the Dawson's and almost directly behind Lang.
As the description of the neighborhood continued, a woman standing
on the porch of the farthest house came into the camera's view.
Seemingly curious about the TV crew, the woman left the porch and
started forward in what appeared to be an effort to see better what
was happening. Noting this, Lang called the woman over, asked her
name, and inquired if she lived in the nearby house.
"Yes, I'm Margrette Smithe. I live in that house."
Lang asked Smithe for her reaction to the killing.
"I'm not surprised. Those people (pointing to the house of the
murder victim) and the people next door, the Pattersons, are heavy
into drugs; they use them and deal them. Mary Dawson must have
feared for her life, as she often did when Peter was doped up. He
would hit Mary; you could hear it at my house. I suspect Mary was
trying to defend herself, or she just had enough and killed him."
Showing only mild surprise at these comments, Lang asked if
Smithe was sure that there were drugs involved.
"You bet," came the swift reply. "Both the Dawsons and the
Pattersons use them."
At that moment, the cameraman saw a figure at the window of
the house that Smithe had just identified as the Patterson's. Using
his zoom lens, the cameraman faded the picture of Lang and Smithe
and zoomed in on the figure in the window. Catching notice of the
movement of someone in the window, Lang asked Smithe if the
Pattersons lived in the house where the man, presumably Mr.
Patterson, was standing at the window.
"Yes," was the neighbor's reply.
Trish Lang's report aired that evening, and the next day the
promotion and advertising departments of KKBT-TV used a clip from
it in a promo that said, in part:
"...KKBT-TV is first with the news. You can rely on KKBT-TV,
as the village of Centerville did yesterday when we brought you the
first report on a murder that may be tied to drug use."
The next day, two lawsuits were filed against the station, its
news team, each of KKBT-TV's executives, its owners, and Margrette
One of the suits came from Mary Dawson. Her complaint alleged
that she shot her husband in self-defense, that no charges were
pending against her for the shooting, and that neither she nor her
deceased husband had ever been involved with drugs. An even larger
suit was filed by the Pattersons. They asked for $1 million in
actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages for libel,
invasion of privacy, and infringement of their civil rights.
In subsequent depositions, it was determined that when Lang
joined the station, she received a booklet that was given to every
reporter and news executive in which KKBT-TV's policies on libel
and invasion of privacy were outlined. The booklet warned against
airing unsubstantiated charges against one person by another. At
great length, the booklet defined and explained the difference
between invasion of privacy and libel. It said that invasion of
privacy required even more care and caution than libel, as privacy
had yet to be clearly defined by either the courts or the state
legislature. It also noted the substantial legal distinction
between the invasion of a public and a private person's privacy and
between public and private places.
Most important, the policy statement said that before any
questionable material was broadcast, it should be referred to
KKBT-TV's news director and, if questions remained, to the station
Other than the booklet, which Lang said was part of an
employee information kit given to her on her first day on the job,
she had received no further training on these subjects. Moreover,
her cameraman did not recall seeing KKBT-TV's booklet on libel or
invasion of privacy. He also said that he had never discussed these
matters with anyone at the station.
In his deposition, the news director confirmed that no members
of the station's news teams except the reporters were briefed on
legal matters. He also verified that he had reviewed the footage
from the Dawson murder, that he was "taken by its dramatic effect,"
and that he believed it could be taken as true since one could
"assume that as a neighbor of the Pattersons and the Dawsons,
Margrette Smithe knew what was happening next door." He also
admitted that he aired the Lang report without discussing it with
the head of thc station.
In his statement, the general manager also revealed that no
one from the station checked with police authorities, the district
attorney, or other law enforcement officials to see if the
allegations of drug use against either the Dawsons or the
Pattersons were part of a public record or could be substantiated.
In its defense, KKBT-TV offered expert testimony by a law
professor who said that the man in the window -- who was, indeed,
Mark Patterson -- was a public person. The profcssor claimed that
at the time of the filming of Lang's story, Patterson chose to
thrust himself into the public arena by showing himself through the
window when it was obvious that a TV crew was reporting from the
sidewalk in front of his home. The professor further contended that
Mark Patterson was a public figure by virtue of his position as a
school tcacher and well-known high school basketball coach in the
When he was questioned a second time, the KKBT-TV cameraman
acknowledged that a high-power zoom lens was necessary to make Mark
Patterson discernible from the street where Lang was conducting her
interview with Margrette Smithe. The cameraman said that if he had
not used such a lens, the viewer would not have known that it was
Patterson in the window.
KKBT-TV is a station in a lower middle-size market in a town of
50,000. You are KKBT-TV's general manager. Please provide the
station's owners the following:
1. A short-term response to the lawsuits and the events. It
should focus on:
a. What are the options available to the station? (Remember,
the actions the station takes will depend on how strong
you think the station's position is.)
b. Your response should also focus on what actions are
appropriate vis-a-vis the employees involved in the
c. Further, it should assess the damage to the station's
reputation. (If it has been damaged, are there steps you
can take to diffuse its impact, and what should those
d. What about steps to correct or retract the story? Also,
what would a correction or retraction imply in the
pending legal proceedings?
e. Other than station management and the involved employees,
who needs to be involved in decisions regarding these
matters? And how are the people or organizations who
should be involved best communicated with, and on what
f. What other things should be included in a meaningful
station manager's short term response? Why should the
items you've noted be included, and how would you respond
2. Next, please provide a long term response to prevent such a
situation from happening again. It should include plans for:
a. Personnel (training, hiring practices, disciplinary
measures, involvement in establishing policies)
b. Finances (insurance rates, cost of implementing training,
c. Technology (How do increasingly advanced technologies
impact on policies?)
d. Information/communication (Does the decision making
procedure meet the needs of the station? What about
insurance, legal services, informing employees of
policies, and keeping employees up-to-date on changes in
e. Time (When do you implement the policies? How do you keep
them current? What part of their workload do employees
sacrifice to attend training sessions?)
f. Station credibility (Is a strategy needed to counter the
negative effects of a libel case on the public's image of
the station? What should it be?)
Again, what else should be considered? Why are these additional
items important, and how should the station respond to them?
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