The anger directed toward the Tahlequah Daily Press over a story about a malnourished dog was palpable - and understandable, if the affronted people don't understand media law. And with social media unaccountable to anyone, it's difficult to explain the distinction.
Animal abuse cases are not uncommon in Cherokee County, and they always garner more attention and outrage from the public than child abuse cases. But one glaring feature boosted the profile of this story: The person accused of starving the dog is a law enforcement officer. The story exploded on Facebook, with thousands of people privy to it, and sharing it exponentially. TDP ran the story, because it had already been in the public domain, but the newspaper named neither the suspect nor the dog owner, because no arrests have been made or charges filed. Any responsible media would handle it that way, because civil law precludes them from accusing a person of a crime for which facts are not in evidence. The "mainstream media" adhere to constraints that do not yet apply to social media.
All journalism students are taught they cannot "libel" or "slander" - the printed word and the spoken word, respectively - people, nor can they defame their character or invade their privacy, although there are caveats. An elected official is entitled to less privacy than his neighbor. Defamation could come about through revelations about an individual that might be accurate, but not criminal; the only reason for use of that information is to titillate, which could damage the person's reputation. Libel is simply something that's not true, and until an official report, arrest warrant or booking log grants "qualified privilege" to report it, most media err on the side of caution. In many cases, there are mitigating circumstances that must be investigated; in this one, the people involved have an acrimonious relationship, which tosses another monkey wrench into the works.
If a story turns out to be false, its subject would have strong grounds for a lawsuit. There are countless case studies, and many small newspapers and radio stations have been destroyed by a verdict with a hefty settlement. But even without the fear of a lawsuit, most media won't take the chance on potentially libelous material because to do so would be unethical. Social media doesn't care about ethics, and neither do the vast majority of their users. And repeating libel that originated with another medium is not a protection. So even though the story about the dog was widely circulated on social media, traditional media must proceed with caution. The identity of the accused - or his job or community status - doesn't factor into the equation.
Some people comprehended TDP's rationale after they got an explanation. But others cried foul, even when they were presented with a scenario placing them or a family member in the same situation, and were told many journalists are skilled enough at computer programs that they could create an image of a starved animal and texts from the alleged perpetrator indicating guilt.
There is some indication social media platforms are starting to care about truth. One "follower" copied and pasted the name of the accused on several of TDP's unrelated Facebook posts, along with lies about the newspaper's motives. Those comments were removed and their author - who has a warped concept of "freedom of speech" - was banned. But Facebook itself issued a notification that he violated its standards by "bullying."
The only defense against libel is truth. And in criminal cases, "truth" starts when an arrest is issued, or charges filed - although that is certainly no indication of guilt. It's a fine line, but one about which traditional media are striving to educate the public. And the public should try wearing the shoes of the accused; the names maligned could be their own.