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Padding the Truth? Libby Trial Raises Questions about Reporters' Note Taking Abilities

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Padding the Truth? Libby Trial Raises Questions about Reporters' Note Taking Abilities

Article excerpt

Write this down: Your notes are not as reliable as you think.

That is true whether they are scrawled in the margins of a business meeting agenda, typed on a secretary's laptop, scribbled on a patient's chart or carefully recorded from a lecture hall blackboard.

And, as the monthlong trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, has shown, they are no more reliable if the notes belong to FBI agents, journalists or White House aides.

That is a somewhat disconcerting thought. People are charged, front-page articles are written and public policies are decided in part based on those notes. If they are flawed, whose can be believed?

"Based on what I've heard in this trial, I don't know if notes are the best evidence of anything," U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton commented midway through the Libby trial.

Jurors, who are to begin their third day of deliberations in Libby's perjury and obstruction case on Friday, must decide how much weight to put on notes that were sometimes sloppy and often inconsistent.

Researchers who have studied note-taking have known its flaws for years. Take college students, for example. Their memories are at their peak, their success depends largely on their note-taking abilities and they practice every day.

Yet only about 30 percent of important classroom information makes it into a typical student's notebook, said Kenneth A. Kiewra, a University of Nebraska educational psychology professor who studies note-taking.

Part of the problem, Kiewra said, is that words are filtered before they make it onto the page. Things we already know often do not get written, he said, nor do things we do not totally understand. And impressions can skew our notes. In that way, notes can become personal snapshots, useful for jogging memory, more than an official record.

Historians have reviewed multiple sets of notes from the same Middle Ages sermon and found that different people created different written records, said Harvard historian Ann Blair. Notes on early inquisitions similarly appear to be skewed by the inquisitor's impressions, she said.

In Libby's case, FBI agent Deborah Bond wrote a report saying Libby "adamantly denied" discussing CIA operative Valerie Plame. The original FBI notes, however, contain no record of that denial. Rather they say he may have discussed Plame but could not recall.

"Adamantly might not be the perfect word," Bond acknowledged at trial.

Prosecutors say Libby told New York Times reporter Judith Miller that Plame, the wife of prominent war critic Joseph Wilson, worked for the CIA. …

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