Magazine article Editor & Publisher

On Retention of Reporters' Materials

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

On Retention of Reporters' Materials

Article excerpt

Consistency strikes best note

Otherwise, media law mavens say: Keep them. Don't keep them.

A century ago, reporters were called "scribblers" because pencil and paper made up the tools of the trade. Nowadays, most reporters spend more time typing than scribbling and their notes have found new homes on hard drives.

But to the law, technology means nothing. A reporter's notes are vulnerable to a subpoena regardless of whether they were taken on a laptop, a legal pad, or a napkin.

Consider these recent brouhahas:

An Arizona grand jury demanded to see all the notes -- electronic or otherwise -- of a newspaper reporter who interviewed a man claiming to be an arsonist. In late February, a local judge ruled in favor of the newspaper.

Also in February, a Washington state appellate court ruled that a group of Arizona journalists pursuing a defamation suit could not get their hands on the notes of a journalism professor who had written a magazine article about them. The piece included an inflammatory quote directed at the journalists.

These court cases raise age-old questions: Is it better to keep old notes or throw them away? Which is more likely to keep a reporter out of trouble?

Not surprisingly, media lawyers disagree. Here's what they say:

Keep 'em: New York media lawyer Victor Kovner tells his clients to keep their notes because they will usually help in court. "They support the credibility of the reporter. They're definitely persuasive and helpful," said Kovner, who represents the New York Daily News, The Village Voice, and other publications.

Because most reporters keep their notes, throwing them away could be seen as suspicious, Kovner said. "In the minds of some judges and jurors, failure to keep them might show a lack of care, an effort to conceal contrary information."

Don't keep 'em: On the other hand, Hal Fuson, chief legal adviser for Copley Press Inc. …

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