Even if broadcast news program presents slanted reporting lacking in research, libel is not proven

Posted in: Tort Liability by Steven Vartabedian on

In Yuin University v. Korean Broadcast System (filed October 5, 2011) 2011 DJDAR 15039, the defendant had broadcast in its Sunday news program a segment called “Degree Factory Confers Doctoral Degrees Even to Persons who Plagiarize.” Reporters had visited the university and found the school to be vacant, a professor/graduate had commented that he only spent two separate one-week visits at the Los Angeles campus in obtaining his degree, and reporters interviewed other graduates who suggested they had copied the work of others in their successful doctoral dissertations. The segment concluded that the school is a “ghost school” that is not found on any reliable websites including that of the State of California.

Yuin sued and its claim of libel went to bench trial. Yuin asserted that the defendant failed to contact Yuin or further investigate before describing the university as “vacant,” which had a defamatory meaning, while the condition that was observed may have only been temporary; the use of the term “ghost school” was also libelous for the same reason; and the contention that two of its graduates had “perfectly identical” dissertations was false. The Los Angeles Superior Court rendered judgment in favor of defendant. The trial court found the statements of defendant were not reasonably susceptible to a defamatory interpretation as a matter of law: the reporter’s observations of the vacancy of the campus were reported in “hyperbolic speech” entitled to constitutional protection, and Yuin failed to prove utter falsehood concerning the allegation of granting of degrees to students who plagiarized their dissertations.

The California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Eight, affirmed. The court found that, based on the totality of the circumstances, the characterization of Yuin as a “suspected degree factory” is an expression of opinion, which cannot support a defamation action, rather than a statement of fact, which may be demonstrably false.
In response to Yuin’s asserting essentially reckless behavior by defendant in failing to get its side of the story, the appellate court emphasized, “Even if we agree that the KBS broadcast was not fully researched, slanted reporting is not actionable. (Paterno v. Superior Court (2008) 163 Cal.App.4th 1342, 1352.) ‘Media defendants are liable for calculated falsehoods, not for their failure to achieve some undefined level of objectivity.’ (Ibid.)”

Needless to say, defamation plaintiffs have an uphill battle in proving “calculated falsehoods” against media defendants who are protected even to the extent their reporting might be slanted; protected, in particular, with respect to stating opinions that having any factual basis. We may grumble about the media’s biased portrayals in some of its reporting; but for a plaintiff to successfully sue requires a whole lot more.

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