Editorial Backup; How Much Should You Save? Edited Drafts, Memos and Notes Could Help You - or Hurt You - in a Libel Suit
Angelo, Jean Marie, Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management
Editorial backup: How much should you save?
What should you save once a story is written? The notes and every edited version of a story? Or only the final draft? Your decision might affect the outcome of a libel case.
Unfortunately, there is no right answers; editors--and even attorneys--are divided on the issue.
One extreme is found at The Philadelphia Inquirer, a newspaper with a reputation for probing journalism. There, reporters and editors are allowed to throw out notes and edited versions of stories.
"It may be a misaken notion" to save everything related to a story, says James Naughton, deputy managing editor. Such pieces can be especially damaging in libel cases that question the "state of mind" of the writer and editor, usually an important point when a public figure brings suit. Lawyers can take any element related to a story and give it a sinister twist, he says.
The paper's reporters, however, are not advised to purge documents at whim. Each reporter and editor must adopt a consistent policy: Save everything, keep certain elements, or save nothing.
Other libel lawyers and editors advise against destroying any material.
"It adds credibility to have accurate files," says Michael Pollet, an attorney who represents Consumer Reports, New England Monthly and other magazines. A jury may find no basis for a statement if there are no notes to read, says Pollet.
Consumer Reports, which takes a lot of heat from subjects, keeps all backup on stories for three years, and maintains a skeletal file of important documents beyond that point. The magazine's thorough backup systems, notes Pollet, helped it win a libel case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Drawing the line
Some editors have adopted a more selective backup system. …