Defamation after death: Is it fair game?

This post was originally published on my JN 499 class blog at The University of Alabama, a course dealing with journalism ethics: https://uajn499.wordpress.com/2015/09/15/defamation-after-death-is-it-fair-game/

It was then later published on DoingEthicsInMedia.com, the website for the “Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications” textbook used for the course: http://www.doingethicsinmedia.com/wp/its-legal-to-defame-a-dead-person-but-that-does-not-make-it-ethical/

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When Vladlen Putistin took his case to court, his claim was clear: He wanted the information rectified and he wanted compensation for the damages. In his view, he believed the journalist’s statements in her published newspaper article defamed his father, thus justifying his decision to sue.

In July 2001, Putistin sued the newspaper Komsomolska Pravda and its journalist on the grounds that an article published three months earlier was harmful to the reputation of his father, Mikhail. Putistin claimed that the article, titled “The Truth about the Death Match,” an infamous soccer match played in Kiev – then a part of the Soviet Union – between former professional soccer players and German military personnel in 1942 during the midst of World War II, suggested Mikhail, a Soviet, was a Nazi collaborator.

But there’s a catch: His father was dead before the article was ever published.

Putistin took his case, Putistin v. Ukraine, as far as the European Court of Human Rights, but lost, according to a press release, not because his concern and distress were necessarily wrong, but because the court ruled statements, in short, whether true or not, cannot be harmful toward the party-in-question’s reputation once he or she is deceased.

As a result, journalists, for instances like these, are taught that their published statements are protected and thus fair game.

Nevertheless, while the journalist’s suggestion may have been truthful despite the many still existing doubts about the exact circumstances surrounding the Death Match, it raises the question: Is it ethical for journalists to defame the dead?

While in favor of the law in its current form, Dr. Matthew D. Bunker, a media law professor at The University of Alabama, believes journalists should still make ethical considerations before publishing.

“I think journalists should always strive to get things right and make the right choices regardless of what the legal consequences are,” he said, later adding in regards to the Putistin case, “I’m sympathetic to it, but I think on the whole – not in particular cases – on the whole, I think libel law already covers enough.”

From my point of view, I agree. While I do believe the legality of posthumous defamation makes sense, I wonder if I feel right about doing it.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, a journalist must be accountable for their actions and decisions, but I’m not sure any could easily come up with a reasonable explanation for publishing untruthful statements about someone who can’t offer a rebuttal. I know I couldn’t.

After all, we, as journalists, know we are expected to minimize harm, among other things, so we shouldn’t forget to keep that in mind.

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