Friday, March 02, 2007

Libel is hard. Let's go shopping!

One of the basic steps in keeping your tales libel-free is to make sure that the hedges and attributions go with the stuff that actually has the potential to get you sued -- in other words, the ones that make accusations of criminal scuzzballhood that you can't substantiate on your own.

In other words, you don't write

Smith parked at the curb, police say. He allegedly got out of the car. Then he emptied a magazine into Jones

because parking and getting out of the car aren't illegal, whereas doing away with your fellow mortals sort of is. It's hard (not impossible) to have too much attribution, so when you spend it, try to spend it properly.
That's what ails the Fox lede at upper right: Two teenage women suspected of donning sunglasses as they robbed a supermarket bank branch were arrested along with a bank teller following a brief car chase Thursday, authorities said. "Suspected of" goes with donning the sunglasses, not with the verb in the following subordinate clause -- you know, "robbed." And "authorities said"? Goes fine with being arrested (which there should be a paper trail for), but doesn't do a lot for that pesky crime itself -- like, "robbed."
And of course, when the cutline says "Ashley Naughty, 19, was arrested after robbing a bank wearing big sunglasses," the cutline writer hasn't merely proved him/herself a salivating goober, he/she has declared young Ashley guilty of -- oh, heck, robbing the bank. And generally it's a good idea to leave that sort of thing to the legal system.
If you have to write "Barbie Bandits," in short, you need to have a few editors on hand who can stop giggling long enough to put your copy through the basic sort of stuff that happens on a real desk.

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