Can you sue a journalist for fraud?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 22 2002 5:24 PM

Can You Sue a Journalist for Fraud?

The Associated Press alleges that 40 stories written by ex-reporter Christopher Newton contain quotations from made-up sources, such as "Tim Dale" of the "Malen Clinic" and "Lynne Hallard" of "Civil Liberties Focus." Can a journalist be prosecuted for fabricating sources?

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Theoretically, but it would be a precedent-setting stretch. Inventing sources is not a crime in and of itself, although it certainly violates every code of journalistic ethics known to man. A criminal fraud case would require that the reporter's deceit had been malicious and resulted in financial gain. The latter, in particular, would be difficult for a prosecutor to prove, since a published story is not intended to attract investment or gifts. Quoting "Hugh Brownstone" of the "Intergon Research Center" in his story on stealth bombers, for example, did not net Newton any additional revenue.

A duped newspaper or magazine could contend that a fiction-spouting journalist obtained part of his salary via fraud, and use a criminal proceeding to try and recoup that money. Given the profession's notoriously low wages, however, it's probably not worth the publicity headache and legal fees. No news organization has ever pursued such a case.

Civil action is a different matter. Newton could be sued for libel if any group feels misrepresented by one of his alleged fabrications. Anti-drug crusaders DARE once sued New Republic fantabulist Stephen Glass over a critical piece he published in Rolling Stone, which was later found to contain several trumped-up quotes and anecdotes. DARE settled the case in 1999 in exchange for an undisclosed sum and a written apology. A companion $50 million lawsuit against Rolling Stone was later dismissed, on the grounds that the magazine had not acted with "actual malice" in publishing the article.

Explainer thanks Tim Gleason of the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of The Skies Belong to Us.

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