One efficient way to resolve libel disputes out of court is to correct stories in the media. Prompt and timely correction can mitigate the extent of damages caused by the media’s violation of a person’s reputation.
Correction is far better as a means to regain an injured reputation than any other means from government or outside regulators. Although correction is often implemented voluntarily, some legal systems allow the statutory right of correction in the civil codes or media laws. Under the right of correction system, the media outlet has to disseminate its own statement correcting its earlier defamatory statements. The major aim of this system is to create a harmonious balance among essential but conflicting social interests.
The right of correction, sometimes confused with the right of reply, refers to the right of the individual who has been defamed by news stories to rectify defamatory stories in the media. The right of correction redresses immediately the reputational damage of any person who is affected by untrue statements or aggrieved through any media. It also contributes to social development because it gives every person in the community the benefit of corrected information. Hence, the availability of such a remedy is a more effective means to satisfy the concerns of persons who have been injured by the news media.
The right of correction originally meant a person’s right to inspect information that an organization possesses about him or her and to challenge the accuracy of that information. Under this right, information about a person must be amended if found to be inaccurate, incomplete, irrelevant, or inappropriate. The right of correction in libel laws is limited to correcting those facts that the media reported inaccurately. In addition to reputational redemption, the right of correction should also create a balance of information, which is necessary to the formation of public opinion. The unrestricted formation of public opinion based on correct information is indispensable to the vitality of a democratic society.
In most democratic countries, news journalism is expected to promote the public’s participation in the media. According to a survey by Bezanson et al. (1987), although journalists believe that correction is an effective way to resolve libel disputes, they think that current libel laws discourage correction of potentially defamatory stories because correction can backfire on journalists when they are sued. Thus, some media attorneys recommend against correction of news stories because if the news media admit error, it may increase the plaintiff’s chance of proving the claim in a subsequent libel suit.
Nevertheless, the media should opt for the right of correction over legal solutions for several reasons. First, legal actions such as libel suits can impose a chilling effect on a free press, leading the media to fear complex and expensive litigation. Second, the often exorbitant investment in time and money, along with legal fees and related costs, for plaintiffs in a libel suit frequently cancels out damage awards. Third, the libel rules that govern the media differ enormously from place to place. The media face different laws pertaining to the same story, especially in the United States. Fourth, libel suits generally entail time-consuming and lengthy legal processes, which delay the establishment of truth if it is ever a litigational goal. And finally, many journalists feel uncertain if and when they should defend their news-gathering procedures, their state of mind, and the stories that they believe are accurate. This is particularly relevant to American journalists.
The right of correction is somewhat similar to the right of reply in that both rights are designed to “right” any media-inflicted harm. However, they are distinguished from each other. Whereas the right of reply provides an opportunity to rebut assertions, the right of correction allows the target of incorrect stories to demand correction of the stories. That is, while the right of correction requires the publisher of erroneous information to correct the mistaken material, the right of reply mandates that the publisher grant space to a person to counter the defamatory stories, regardless of whether the stories are correct or not.
In US media law, the right of correction has created issues such as how and to what extent it can be implemented. The first issue is whether the statutory right of correction violates the constitutional right to a free press under the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Because the correction should state the original inaccurate information and clearly correct it by giving the ascertained facts, the correction can burden the media unduly by violating their right to a free press.
The second issue is whether the right of correction is limited to factual news stories, as in Germany, or whether it also includes the expression of opinion, as in France. Some scholars argue that even if the right of correction is allowed for only factual statements or assertions, it is difficult to distinguish fact from opinion. Thus, because the right of correction is primarily for vindication of the damaged reputation, to distinguish fact from opinion is not helpful in resolving libel disputes.
The third issue involves who may pursue the right of correction through the judicial system. This becomes controversial especially when a government agency can ask for correction, as in France and South Korea. Indeed, if a governmental body can exercise the right of correction, the right can be abused or impose a chilling threat on the media as a “watchdog.”
The fourth issue is whether the right of correction should be recognized through voluntary codes of practice or through legal prescription. Because journalists will not be able to participate in a tit-for-tat argument when printing or broadcasting corrections, this is best dealt with through self-regulation. Therefore, media outlets should be free to make whatever comments they wish about a correction, and a blanket ban on such comments is unnecessary.
In many countries, the right of correction is stipulated statutorily. Not surprisingly, how the right of correction applies varies from country to country. In Europe, most legal systems consider the right of correction compatible with freedom of expression.
One distinctive feature of the right of correction in France, called droit de rectification, is that the right is applied only to the government. The law of 1881 that provided for the right of reply for individuals also included the right of correction. It has been amended several times since 1881. The 1982 law states that the right of correction applies to radio, TV, and other audiovisual communication media as well as to print media. The law provides that factual inaccuracies in newspaper stories pertaining to a public official’s official conduct should be corrected.
Germany has a statutory right of correction. A person injured by news articles can demand a correction of the stories. The right of correction is enforced only by courts. The courts decide the content, manner, time, place, and the size of typeface of the corrected stories. The burden of proof for the correction of defamatory stories rests with the plaintiffs.
Although the statutory right of correction is not universal in the United States, about 30 states have recognized the right of retraction. To date, only one state, North Dakota, has accepted the Uniform Correction Defamation Act, which limits damages to economic loss if a newspaper follows the correction provisions, even when malice is proven. The Uniform Correction Defamation Act is endorsed by the American Bar Association and the newspaper editors’ group. If adopted by states, it will likely reduce the hundreds of defamation cases filed annually in the United States.
South Korea is the only Asian country that has a statutory right of correction. South Korea revised related laws and enacted a special law in 2005 that enforces the media to correct wrong stories as a means to redress reputational damage. The law provides for comprehensive ways to resolve libel and invasion of privacy disputes prior to judicial intervention. Significantly, the law allows a governmental body to exercise the right of correction.
Other countries such as England and the Netherlands have similar statutory right of correction systems. Finland, in its news media law enacted in 2004, requires the right of correction not only of print media but also of electronic media.
Future of The Right of Correction
Interpreting the right of correction still causes controversy. The right of correction is an effective means of satisfying the concerns of those who believe that they have been unfairly injured by the media. It serves as an alternative to intrusive and expensive defamation litigation that can chill the exercise of independent editorial decision-making. Further, the right of correction is a much less intrusive interference with editorial freedom than the right of reply.
On the other hand, although the right of correction should be the least intrusive and coercive way of reputational recovery, it should be discretionary when it comes to its application to the press. Even if the right can be granted when the accused turns out to be innocent in the courts, the right should not be allowed to the value judgment. In addition, the right should be limited to those who can prove that the statement in question was false and that their legal rights have suffered.
Most important about the pro-and-con debate about the right of correction is that correction of media stories can be harmonized with journalistic freedom and freedom of expression.
Above all, such remedies as the right of correction can in themselves affect journalistic freedoms in one way or the other. At the same time, if the right is not enforced by law, it becomes difficult for the defamed to correct inaccurate stories when the media balks in the name of freedom of press. To further complicate the matter, the right of correction differs from country to country. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the right of correction would function as an effective self-regulating mechanism for the news media to the benefit of a wider public.
- Article 19 (2003). Memorandum on the Draft Council of Europe Recommendation on the Right of Reply in the New Media Environment. London: Article 19.
- Bezanson, R. P., Soloski, J., & Cranberg, G. (1987). Libel law and the press: Myth and reality. New York: Free Press.
- Braithwaite, N. (ed.) (1995). The international libel handbook: A practical guide for journalists. London: Butterworth-Heinemann.
- Glasser, C. (ed.) (2006). International libel and privacy handbook: A global reference for journalists, publishers, webmasters, and lawyers. New York: Bloomberg.
- Haiman, F. (1987). Citizen access to the media: A cross-cultural analysis of four democratic societies. Chicago, IL: Northwestern University Institute for Modern Communications.
- Hermason, L. W. (1992). Setting the record straight. Journalism Monographs, 133, 1–41.
- Lee, J. (1998). Press freedom, the press arbitration system and sociopolitical changes in South Korea: 1981–1996. PhD dissertation, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
- Sanford, B. W. (2007). Libel and privacy. Aspen, CO: Aspen.