MUSKOGEE, Okla., Feb. 05, 2024 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — In a historic decision, a jury in Muskogee County District Court, Oklahoma, has delivered a $25 million verdict in favor of Scott Sapulpa, a former assistant football coach, against The Oklahoman newspaper, the state’s largest paper owned by Gannett Co Inc (NYSE: GCI). The jury found Sapulpa’s claim compelling and awarded him $5 million in compensatory damages and an additional $20 million in punitive damages. The record-breaking verdict results from a defamation lawsuit by Sapulpa, represented by Smith Barkett Law Group.
Sapulpa’s legal battle stems from being falsely identified by The Oklahoman as the individual responsible for racist comments directed towards the Norman High School girls’ basketball team during a national anthem kneeling incident. Matt Rowan, the play-by-play announcer responsible for broadcasting the tournament game, later released a statement taking responsibility for the racist rant, acknowledging that he, not Sapulpa, was the source.
As detailed by reporter Michael Duncan, who covered the trial, Mike Barkett, an attorney for Sapulpa, told the jury, “Scott was labeled a racist. He was labeled vile.” Barkett showed the jury that the Oklahoman defiantly continued to publish that Scott uttered the racist remarks despite having the information that they had the wrong guy.
Cameron Jourdan, the reporter for The Oklahoman, and the publication were criticized for failing to conduct adequate fact-checking before publishing the story. Smith highlighted the self-interested haste displayed by The Oklahoman in their pursuit of breaking the news, neglecting their responsibility to verify the accuracy of a story with life-altering consequences,”
Cassie Barkett, another attorney representing Sapulpa, emphasized the severe consequences suffered by Sapulpa due to The Oklahoman’s inaccurate reporting. “Sapulpa, once a respected teacher and coach, faced a barrage of threats, hate calls, and messages after the story was published and picked up by other media outlets, leading to his virtual termination from his position. The impact extended to Sapulpa’s personal life, forcing him to delete all social media accounts as his contact information went viral, resulting in further harassment.”
Eric W. Rose, a Los Angeles crisis and reputation management expert, testified for Sapulpa that it would take a minimum of $860,000 to hire a digital public relations firm to buy advertising and distribute enough positive internet content about Sapulpa to suppress his name from showing up on Google searches related to Sapulpa being labeled a racist. The incorrect story has over 190,000 page views, and 70,000 readers clicked on The Oklahoman’s story alone. Rose testified that research showed that Sapulpa would have to overcome 813 online-related stories with a publicity value of over $21 million.
Syracuse University journalism professor Joel Kaplan, a former investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune and a reporter for Gannett’s Nashville Tennessean from 1979 to 1986, testified as an expert witness for Sapulpa. Kaplan told the jury that The Oklahoman violated Gannett’s policy by allowing the reporter to offer confidentiality to sources independently without editor approval. He criticized the newspaper for not meeting professional standards, citing the lack of verification in Jourdan’s reporting as one of the most egregious examples of journalistic malpractice. Kaplan believed Jourdan had guessed about the story’s accuracy, disregarded red flags, and faulted the newspaper for not contacting Sapulpa before publishing and for insufficient follow-up attempts amid conflicting reports.
In light of the jury’s landmark verdict, Barkett reiterated the significance of holding media outlets accountable for their actions, particularly when their reporting severely damages an individual’s reputation and livelihood. “We are satisfied with the jury’s verdict. It underscores the significance of truth, highlighting the consequences of falsely presenting someone as making racist remarks. The acknowledgment by the jury signifies that The Oklahoman fell short of its journalistic standards in reporting such a sensitive matter.
Media Contact: Smith Barkett Law Group, PLLC (918) 912-2000
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