Lawmaker wants newspapers to make corrections as prominent as errors

Wednesday, February 2, 2000

A Georgia state legislator, angry over headlines and newspaper stories that he perceives as unfair or inaccurate, has introduced a bill in the Georgia House that would require a newspaper to make its correction literally as prominent as the error if it hopes to avoid monetary damages in libel suits.

State Rep. Bob Lane, a Statesboro Democrat, said that he introduced the legislation “because I think it's just something that needs to be done.”

“I just recall a number of times in my particular newspaper — and I've seen it in larger publications, too — when headlines didn't really reflect a true and actual account of what was taking place and what happened,” Lane said. “I just view it as a fairness thing. If a newspaper has the freedom, and they do, to write an article and put whatever they want out there, if it is an incorrect article, then the person they're writing about should have the same or equal respect.”

Lane's bill would alter existing Georgia law that says newspapers defending libel suits can offer evidence that corrections or retractions were published “in as conspicuous and public a manner as that in which the alleged libelous statement was published.”

Lane would take that a step further by requiring the correction or retraction not only to appear on the same page as the disputed item, but also to carry the same size headline as the original story.

“My particular bill says if it is serious enough to be in litigation, if they tried to mitigate damages by printing a retraction, at a minimum it needs to be on the same page and in the same type as the original article,” he said.

Asked if he was envisioning a situation that could result in a front-page banner headline correction, Lane replied, “I would.”

“I don't expect to see that,” he added, “but I do expect the media to take that (potential outcome) into account” and use more care in developing factual articles.

Lane, a 20-year lawmaker, acknowledged that part of his ire stems from some bad experiences he has had with his local newspaper, the Statesboro Herald, relating to his ownership of low-income rental property in Statesboro.

“They printed a headline tearing down my character,” Lane said. “I've had all kinds of instances, and I can think of a half-dozen situations right now … when the people involved and the family involved are so mad at the paper.

“Not all print is like that,” he said, “but half the laws we pass [are] because a certain segment of society doesn't do right. That's the story.”

Lane said he has talked with the Statesboro Herald to ask them to be more careful in what they write and print. “My approach to them was that they were not doing the community a service. It makes us look to be a contentious group that fights among itself all the time,” he said. As a result, he said, the paper has “toned it down a little.”

But despite his problems with the local paper, Lane insists his legislation “is not a direct thing against them; this is just a fairness issue.”

Asked about Lane's complaints, Statesboro Herald Editor Amelia Hall said, “Bob has been treated fairly” by the newspaper. However, she said there was one instance involving a headline when “we had a new copy editor on board who did not understand the sensitivity of certain words.”

That individual wrote a headline for an Oct. 26, 1999, story that said, “State Rep. Sues Juveniles” with a subhead, “Lane Accuses Two of Vandalizing Controversial Rental Property,” when in fact that was incorrect, Hall said. Lane cited the same example during his interview.

“We ran a clarification the next day, and when charges were dropped against these juveniles, we gave Bob full credit” for working to get the charges dropped in the headline, subheads and stories that followed, Hall said.

“In no way has he been vilified by our newspaper,” Hall said.

Hall said the Statesboro Herald ran a story when Lane introduced his bill last week, and the story included his comments on why he was introducing the legislation. At first, she said, the lawmaker refused to give the paper an interview, but he later called back and said he would talk to the paper's reporter about the bill.

“We ran his comments, and he called the next day, thanked the reporter and said if you need anything else, call again in the future,” Hall said, adding that was a “first” for the paper and the lawmaker.

In hopes of preserving a detente with Lane, Hall said, “I'm not touching this editorially” and will leave protests over the legislation to other papers in the state.

Meanwhile, Hall said, the information she is receiving indicates that Lane “is pushing it (the bill) hard and heavy at the Capitol and is starting to get some support for it.”

Lane also said he was getting a fair amount of support and thought the bill had a chance of passing, although it would be an uphill battle.

“Most people get good coverage and don't have a problem with the news media and don't want to stir up anything,” he said.

But Lane said that at a minimum he expected the bill to get a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. And even if it doesn't pass, he says, the bill has gotten people talking about the fairness issue.

“I think you ought to talk about stuff like this,” he said.

Neither Robin Rhodes, executive director of the Georgia Press Association, nor state Rep. DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, president of the press association, could be reached for comment.

The Associated Press said the association had not yet taken a position on the bill, but it quoted Porter as raising questions about the legislation. Complying with the proposed change could be difficult, Porter said, “because every day there's a new way you compose the pages,” the AP said.