The Tully Center for Free Speech

Free Speech Zone

Pranks and Errors

By Roy Gutterman, July 18, 2013

The airplane crash dominated the news for a whole weekend a few weeks ago until the next big news broke.  Just as the story of the dramatic Asiana Airlines crash began to fade from the public’s attention, a television report catapulted it back into the news cycle.

When a San Francisco-area television station reported, or misreported, the names of the four pilots, it was apparent the station was the subject of a hoax or a prank.  A reporter, live on the air, read four names that were clearly not real.  When pronounced phonetically, they sounded like English words, intended to mimic Asian-sounding names.

Confirmed by an intern at the National Transportation Safety Board, it turned out to be false information.  The station, KTVU-TV apologized, and will probably do a more thorough job reporting news and confirming details – perhaps even pronouncing foreign-sounding names before going on the air. 

It was certainly not the first time a television station got burned by sources or even someone going live on the air with phony information.  Most likely, it will not be the last.  Perhaps, one of the most famous live television news pranks came live on ABC news in 1994 during the O.J. Simpson police chase in which a guy claiming to be a witness blasted Peter Jennings with a famous “Bababooey,” an homage to Howard Stern.

That might have been a humorous prank while the fictitious names read last week were ethnically and racially insensitive and offensive.  But as offensive as this incident may be to many, as embarrassing as it might be for both the television station and the airline, one thing should be certain:  it is not legally actionable.

The airline plans to sue the television station for broadcasting the phony names. The airline announced it planned to sue for defamation for hurting the airline’s reputation.

The law of defamation protects an individual’s reputation from harm.  In narrow settings, defamation law can also protect a company’s reputation.  But the elements of proving a defamation claim would require proof that the defendant, in this case, the television station, either knew it was publishing something false or had reason to doubt the veracity of the information.  The airline would also have to prove that that publication or broadcast then harmed the company’s reputation.

Another potential claim, here, which would likely be tacked on, would be intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress.  This, too, would require a checklist proving that some sort of intentional or extremely irresponsible behavior was outrageous, outside the bounds of decency and propriety and caused extreme emotional distress.

Again, proof becomes an important issue here. So does common sense.  Satire is protected under the First Amendment. There is a time and place for jokes, pranks and satire.  The news is not that place.

At the end of the day, this was a series of mistakes and errors delivered as news. Newsgathering is not an easy thing to do.  Reporting and confirming information is an intricate and complicated procedure, requiring development of sources, relationships, trust and ingenuity.  Being a reporter is more than just doing a Google search or following someone on Facebook or Twitter.  It is also more than just talking to the first person who may answer the phone at a government agency.

The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the broadcast airwaves, also has rules governing the knowing delivery of false information that could harm the public interest. That regulation, too, is inapplicable. The television station was not broadcasting information it had reason to doubt.

Asiana Airlines is struggling in the aftermath of an airline disaster, still trying to figure out what exactly caused the disaster and tragedy in which three people were killed and numerous injured.  The airline may be in for some criticism and most likely litigation of its own.

Taking an aggressive stance against the media in a case of a prank and error redirects attention from the real story.  The planned litigation against the television station would add another insult to this injury.


Roy S. Gutterman is an associate professor of communications law and journalism and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.