There is a new push for adoption of the Uniform Correction or Clarification of Defamation Act or UCCDA. Proposed by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and promoted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, it would encourage corrections and clarifications of false statements that "would tend to injure a person's reputation." It applies in all circumstances in which written or broadcast communications may have an effect upon reputation.
Proponents are pushing to have state legislatures consider the measure. It has been proposed in seven states in one form or another but only adopted in North Dakota. The act would enable an injured person to recover damages for actual economic loss as a result of the false statements, but would protect the speaker or publisher of the statement from punitive damages or presumed loss of reputation damages when a correction is published in a way that is likely to reach the audience that saw or heard the original error.
The Society of Professional Journalists is concerned about the measure for three primary reasons:
The UCCDA, if adopted by state legislatures, might provide incentive for media owners to back away from the truth and abandon reporters involved in such stories. As we have seen recently in the Chiquita and Tailwind cases, there is already a lot of incentive for media owners to settle cases rather than defend stories.
Journalists should also be concerned about the protection of confidential sources under the model statute. In North Dakota, the only state to pass the law, technical amendments were made to achieve a more satisfactory balance in this regard.
The last concern is a strategic and philosophical one. While states are encouraged to pass the uniform laws unaltered, sad experience has shown whenever legislatures begin discussion of such "press laws" the results are often punitive. Is the risk of more punitive laws worth opening up a discussion on this model statute? Could our limited resources be more effectively spent on improving Freedom of Information laws?
Arguments in support of the measure from Edward Seaton, president of ASNE, include:
It would help hold down the soaring costs of libel judgements.
It would increase the credibility of newspapers with the public and also help businesses which may be targets of defamation suits.
The act puts the focus on getting the story right, on fixing the problems. Under present law there is often a disincentive to correct.
The law would take the guess work out of requirements for requesting or publishing a correction, compared to present retraction statutes in many states.
For more detailed discussion on the act and a copy of its language, point your web browser to (http://www.asne.org/ideas/ideas.htm).