Author: Steve Pasternack
Publication: Headlines and Libel: Is the ‘Unit’ Approach the Most Effective, Newspaper Research Journal, volume 8, no. 2 (winter 1987), pp. 33-41.
Most courts considering libel claims against potentially defamatory headlines atop accurate stories consider the headlines to be part of the truthful stories. That approach doesn’t match the power headlines have to influence readers’ views of stories, Pasternack found.
He gave four groups of 10 students one of four versions of a story about the arrest of a man charged with robbing a food store. Students who received a defamatory headline atop an accurate story were almost as likely to think the suspect was guilty as students who received a defamatory headline and a defamatory story.
Students who received a non-defamatory headline atop a defamatory story were almost as likely as students who received both non-defamatory headlines and stories to think the suspect was innocent.
Author: Susan Keith
Publication: Libel in 48 Point: How Courts Have Ruled Since Sullivan on Allegedly False and Defamatory Headlines Atop Accurate Stories, paper presented to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication 2000 convention, available in the AEJMC archive.
The Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in late 1998 that a newspaper could be successfully sued for libel over a false and defamatory headline, even when the story to which it referred was substantially accurate.
Fortunately for newspapers, this ruling - in a case that involved actor Brian “Kato” Kaelin and the National Examiner headline “Cops Think Kato Did It” - does not appear to be part of a substantial trend, Keith found.
Her research into 24 libel cases between 1964 and 1999 showed that courts have been far more likely to consider allegedly libelous headlines in context of the stories they accompany, using one of two common-law approaches: the unit approach or the “fair index” rule.
However, use of the “fair index” rule, which is somewhat tougher on media defendants that the unit approach, has expanded, suggesting that copy editors need to be especially careful that headlines accurately reflect stories.