Media's Public

‘Victim-less’ mistakes: just some bruise on media’s face

By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
SunStar Cebu and SunStar Superbalita

They may not hold the paper or broadcast station liable but may hurt the news outlet’s credibility

A broadcaster in successive radio commentaries talked about “the end of the world” on a specific coming day, asking listeners to prepare themselves “spiritually” for it.

A news director in another radio station, confusing a fictitious news broadcast for a breaking event, a civil war involving a state and the federal government in the U.S., lifted some portions of it to break the news in Cebu. (Talk about fake news: though unintentional, it was epic.)

Those happened in Cebu many years ago and they were not mistakes without victims. Those who trusted the radio commentator and the radio station somehow were distressed: over a coming apocalypse in the first and a shooting war in U.S. mainland in the second.

‘Honest mistake’

Honest mistake maybe. Although looking back, one would wonder how the radio commentator, obviously messianic or nuts, was not stopped by management and the news director deftly got away with it.

What is “honest mistake” which is often cited by a newspaper or broadcast station to explain a lapse or error?
Libel lawyers tell us it is one committed without ill-will or spite. The word is “malice,” an element of libel without which any civil or criminal complaint falls.

A national newspaper ran a cover of “Time” magazine to go with its April 20, 2013 story that then president Benigno Aquino III was one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of the year. The cover was fake, a meme ran on the internet by anti-Noynoy Aquino group to ridicule his being in the 100 list. The newspaper’s plea: an honest mistake.

No ill motive

There would be no bad motive for the paper to run a fake Time cover. Just no diligent work in verifying the source of the material.

But in this incident, a victim-less error, the daily wouldn’t be, and wasn’t, sued. If it had been dragged to court, it would’ve used, most likely, the defense of rush of deadline for the mistake — and, of course, absence of malice.

In a Philippine case (Lopez et al vs. Court of Appeals et al), the Supreme Court said defense of work rush could apply to a daily but not to a weekly paper. The weekly ran the wrong photo for a story titled “Hoax of the Year.”

No victim but…

No individual or institution that can sue is hurt in a “victim-less” mistake, such as (1) the wrong Page 1 date in one issue or nonsensical paragraphs in another issue of this paper, or (2) the technical snafu in a BBC newscast, which had the news anchor fidgeting on his seat and fiddling with his pen on air for several minutes.

A “victim-less” lapse by a news outlet, of course, is not ignored. It usually sets off in the newsroom a system review and gate-mending. Mistakes, though innocent and harmless, could impair public trust in the media outlet if they become serial.

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