Defamation In the Media Case Law In Texas

Defamatory statements read from a script and broadcast constitute libel rather than slander. See Christy v. Stauffer Publications, Inc., 437 S.W.2d 814, 815 (Tex. 1969). Libel is a defamatory statement, expressed in written or other graphic form, which tends to injure a person's reputation, "and thereby expose the person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or financial injury or to impeach any person's honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation or to publish the natural defects of anyone and thereby expose the person to public hatred, ridicule, or financial injury." TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. 73.001 (Vernon 1997). Whether words are capable of the defamatory meaning the plaintiff attributes to them is a question of law for the court. See Musser v. Smith Protective Servs., Inc., 723 S.W.2d 653, 654 (Tex. 1987). In making this determination, we construe the statement as a whole in light of the surrounding circumstances, based upon how a person of ordinary intelligence would perceive the entire statement. See id. at 655. A public official asserting a defamation claim against a media defendant must prove: (1) the defendant published a false statement; (2) which was defamatory to the public official; (3) the false statement was made with actual malice as to its truth. See Evans v. Dolcefino, 986 S.W.2d 69, 76 (Tex. App.--Houston [1st Dist.] 1999, no pet.). A private citizen must prove the same elements, except that she need only show the false statement was made with negligence as to its truth. See id. A defendant can defeat a libel claim by establishing the "substantial truth" of the statement. See McIlvain v. Jacobs, 794 S.W.2d 14, 15 (Tex. 1990). A broadcast is substantially true if the allegedly defamatory statement is not more damaging to the plaintiff's reputation, in the mind of the average person, than the truthful statement. See id. at 16. In determining if a broadcast report is substantially true, we look to the "gist" of the broadcast. See id. When a case involves media defendants, the defendants need only prove that third party allegations reported in a broadcast were, in fact, made and under investigation; they need not demonstrate the allegations themselves are substantially true. See Dolcefino v. Turner, 987 S.W.2d 100, 109 (Tex. App.--Houston [14th Dist.] 1998, pet. granted).