A couple with dwarfism is suing E! for doctoring their photograph and using it to illustrate a ridiculous fake reality show.
According to the AP, Cara and Gibson Reynolds were initially photographed (image at left) — also by an AP photographer — for a story about people with genetic conditions trying to have kids. But the E! show The Soup used the image as part of a comedy sketch — they "superimposed tattooed babies in pageant sashes and lingerie supermodels on the photo" (right) and used it as a promo for a fake reality show called Fertile Little Tattooed Pageant Parents Who Enjoy Baking. We actually wrote about it back in 2009.
Now the Reynoldses are suing E! parent company Comcast and The Soup host (and Community star) Joel McHale in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for today — the case is categorized as "libel, slander, misrepresentation." NBC Philadelphia adds that the Reynolds say they suffered "physical and emotional harm" as a result of the doctored photo. According to the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, libel in the state "occurs when a false and defamatory statement is published which tends to harm a person's reputation or expose him or her to public hatred, contempt or ridicule. It is important to remember that defamation can be in many forms, including articles, headlines, advertising, letters to the editor, sports columns, drawings, opinions, outlines, and photographs." Plaintiffs in libel cases have to prove that a statement (or in this case photograph) was in fact defamatory, that "special harm result[ed] to the plaintiff because of its publication," and that a reader would understand it as defamatory. This last could potentially be tough if the defense can show that reasonable readers wouldn't think the photo was real. An attorney who specializes in fair use told me that based on the coverage, a successful suit against Comcast would be "unlikely."
Anybody who works in media knows the difficulty of finding appropriate images, and Jezebel has drawn fire in the past for our choices of AP photos. Still, doctoring a couple's photo without their consent to make them look like bizarre pageant parents shows extremely poor judgment, even if it turns out not to be legally actionable. Add to that the fact that the couple in question were already part of a group that comes in for a lot of bigoted jokes, and you have a really, really bad design decision. And even if the Reynoldses do get some compensation, they'll have to wait a long time for it — the next event on their case docket is a settlement conference in September 2012.