ASNE, APME join amicus brief is support of Ohio TV station

As national journalism organizations, ASNE and APME don't often weigh in on purely state or local controversies. Every once in a while, however, a piece of legislation or pending court case comes along that merits — or in this case, demands — our participation regardless of how localized it may be.  Anderson v. WBNS-TV, Inc. is one of those cases.
This case stems from a defamation lawsuit filed against WBNS-TV, the CBS-affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, by an individual identified by police as a robbery suspect. The Columbus Police Department actually circulated a photo of the plaintiff, Aaron Anderson, and the other suspects as it sought the public's help in solving the robbery. Anderson and the others in the photo told the police they weren't involved, at which point the police asked WBNS-TV to take the photo down from its website. The station promptly removed the photo, but those identified still followed through with a lawsuit.

A trial court granted summary judgment to the station but an Ohio Court of Appeals reversed, holding, in relevant part: (1) the plaintiffs who were identified in the photos distributed by police and posted to the internet by WBNS-TV are clearly private plaintiffs. The Court of Appeals also held that the issue was not a matter of public concern, stating (somewhat incredibly) that the only thing that made it a matter of public concern is the fact that it was covered by news media; and (2) WBNS-TV  clearly defamed these plaintiffs by falsely identifying them as robbery suspects. The only outstanding issue was whether the station was justified in relying on the police as the source of this information. The court said “no” and that the station is required to engage in some independent investigation rather than relying on police handout photos.

We joined an amicus brief filed in support of WBNS-TV, Inc. by a total of seven media organizations, including ASNE/APME, the Ohio Association of Broadcasters, the Ohio News Media Association, the Radio Television Digital News Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. The brief explains the danger that would result from affirming the appellate court decision, most notably the impact it would have on the media's ability to assist the police in urgent or emergency situations (this is also a reason that Attorney General Mike DeWine's office filed an amicus brief in support of the station) as it effectively says that even reliance on official law enforcement statements without independent investigation could constitute actual malice.