I'm writing a novel. I have a line in my book that goes something like this:

He looked at the newspaper on the table. The Chicago Tribune featured an article that read, "Hank Reed sentenced to 20 years in prison."

The Chicago Tribune is a real newspaper and the article above has never been featured in the newspaper. Is it legally permissible to claim that the Chicago Tribune wrote this article? I have the normal disclaimers in the front of the book, but I'm not sure if that protects me.

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    I can't see how your example would defame the Tribune, anyway. I've seen worse in satire by a long way. For instance, the BBC Radio 4 series, The Museum of Everything includes a quote along the lines of "According to The Daily Mail nearly half of all foreigners are in the UK". That's deliberately satirical (cough defamatory cough), and aimed at a specific publication. Long story short, you've got nothing to worry about.
    – AJFaraday
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 11:53
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    (The Daily Mail is known for being both alarmist and anti-immigraiton, if that wasn't clear)
    – AJFaraday
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 11:54
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    @AJFaraday That's clear enough. What's less clear is whether it is in fact a newspaper.
    – Strawberry
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 12:42
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    @AJFaraday I think Strawberry was being sarcastic about whether the Daily Mail deserves the title of "newspaper". Whatever it is, it's far from Britain's oldest: it was first published in 1896, making it younger than The Times (1785), The Guardian (1821 as The Manchester Guardian), the _London Evening Standard (1827), The Daily Telegraph and The Scotsman (1855), the Western Mail (1869) and a host of others. Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 14:28
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    Such fictional works often contain a first-page disclaimer noting that what follows is a work of fiction (...any resemblance to real events or persons living or dead is coincidental, etc). This is sufficient, and not a bad idea if the work may potentially be misinterpreted (by the man on the Clapham omnibus...) to be a reporting of real events.
    – J...
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 19:57

2 Answers 2


Yes, as long as it is clear that this is fiction. It is utterly common for fiction set in the current world to mention real institutions and people, and have them do and say things that they never really did or said, to fit the plot or just to provide background. Busman's Honeymoon by Sayers included quotes from the (London) Times about Lord Peter Wimsey's wedding, an event which of course never occurred. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels frequently included imagined stories in the New York Times, as well as in the (fictional) New York Gazette. The Novel Advise and Consent by Allan Drury included many fictional stories by real papers (often the Washington Post) about its fictional events, as well as fictional acts and statements by many real political figures of the day. The list could be extended almost forever.

As long as a reasonable reader would understand this to be fiction, there is no issue of defamation. Nor does any paper have a copyright on its name. As for trademarks, as long as you aren't trying to sell a fake paper under a real name, there is no legal issue.

Go ahead, and I hope it is a great story.

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    Clancy's Debt of Honor had CNN intentionally lying, in a military disinformation campaign, having reporters change location and clothing to simulate a week's worth of reportage. The goal was to show (the enemy) two damaged aircraft carriers stuck in drydock behind the reporters, when one was fixed that night and on its way to surprise the enemy. Clancy wrote "CNN is, after all, an American news channel." Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 23:06
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    Does that commonly-seen disclaimer (“Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental,” etc.) play any role here?
    – KRyan
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 4:01
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    @ KRyan It does, but not as much as you might think. When there is a clear resemblance, a disclaimer will not prevent a defamation suit, and when there is not, the disclaimer is largely redundant and superfluous. The disclaimer is some evidence that defamation is not intended, but it is or may be self-serving, and so of limited value. Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 5:26
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    @KRyan: That disclaimer is often the most fictional part of a work of fiction.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 3:29
  • Disclaimers like that originally became common in response to a well-publicized lawsuit. web.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/HistoryWired/Davis/… Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 5:46

is it legal to state a newspaper wrote an article when in fact it never did?

He looked at the newspaper on the table. The Chicago Tribune featured an article that read, "Hank Reed sentenced to 20 years in prison."

That is not defamatory with respect to the newspaper, which is what I gather you are asking.

A fictional title of that type does not harm (and does not even tend to harm) the reputation of The Chicago Tribune. Except for very specific, elaborate, and unlikely circumstances, it would be unreasonable to allege that this or akin fictional title in a novel has damaged the image of the newspaper company.

Generally speaking, it would not be defamatory with respect to a third party either (whether or not that person's name happens to be Hank Reed). For it to be defamatory, the novel would have to be such that its context reasonably supports a conclusion that the Hank Reed of the novel (1) essentially alludes to some real individual whose characteristics resemble or are similar to those of that character; (2) that individual has not been sentenced to prison; and (3) the fictional sentence of imprisonment is associated to some reproachable conduct that in the novel is attributed to that character Hank Reed.

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