Lawsuit about photo juxtaposition in crime news reports

I’ve noticed that in some news reports about crime, it will tell about a robbery, a murder, an arson, or some other crime…and under the headline, there is a big photo of someone who is *not *the suspect or someone involved (you have to read the fine print caption to realize that that big photo is of someone else - a family member, a friend, etc.)

The story I was reading just now involved a police officer who shot an intruder - and the news story shows a big photo of a police officer in a uniform…but then you read the fine print and realize it’s not the police officer involved, but someone else.

Could this be plausible grounds for a libel lawsuit?

Imagine if a newspaper reports: “MAN WANTED FOR MULTIPLE HOMICIDES” and then shows a big photo of some intimidating-looking African-American man in a hoodie…but then you read the fine print in the caption and - oh, it’s a *friend *of the suspect, or the suspect’s neighbor, or the suspect’s cousin, etc…not the actual suspect himself.

Many readers who don’t read the fine print would quite quickly assume that the photo was a photo of the suspect. Isn’t this somewhat libelous?

20 years earlier, in 1996, an error in the computer typesetting system of the Minneapolis Star Tribune resulted in the picture of a candidate for County Commissioner from the Election Guideline of a week earlier being reprinted above an article on ““New Era Charity Fraud Case Settled” that was published on election day on page B3. The text of the article was all about the fraud case, the caption was about the case & clearly not about him, and he was never mentioned in the article at all. He lost that Primary Election by 104 votes to the endorsed DFL candidate.

Candidate John Derus filed complaints with the Minnesota Supreme Court, which dismissed it, with the Senate Election Laws Committee to have the election overturned, but that was also dismissed. He then filed a lawsuit against the newspaper, which continued for 2 years, until he eventually dropped the lawsuit.

So other than printing a correction & issuing an apology, (and paying a lot of legal expenses), the newspaper was not punished for this error.

[Note that libel claims are much harder to prove for a political candidate. And that he was never named in the article itself, nor in the caption on his picture.]

IANAL, and laws vary from jurisidction to jurisdiction, but as the publisher of a small business newsletter, I would argue that as long as the person in the photo is somehow connected to the report, and is correctly identified in the usual manner for that publication (i.e., the caption is in the standard type size and position), he/she has no claim.

Libel generally requires a false statement of fact, made with malice or negligence, that tends to harm the reputation of the plaintiff. A photograph of someone placed in proximity to a report of some infamous crime or incident does not (IMHO) constitute such a statement, particularly if the person depicted is somehow connected with the incident.

However, and this seems to be the point of the OP, if the person is not conneccted in any way with the incident being reported, he/she might, in some jurisdictions, be able to bring a “false light” action. From here:

I recommend reading more on that site, or others, about the principle of “false light.”

Stuff like this is common in the UK when papers are gagged by a court order. The front page will run a story like ‘TV star in prostitute scandal’ without naming the star. Juxtaposed on the other side of the page will be a seemingly unconnected story with a shot of a star attending a premiere with his wife or something similar. British readers are accustomed to putting the dots together on these occasions.