Journalist's Guide

To avoid these pitfalls, the frontline reporter should carefully check the facts before publication and the editor should provide a second layer of pre-publication review. On sensitive stories, having a lawyer review the copy may be the best way to avoid time-consuming and expensive litigation. Thus, regardless of the need for speed in today’s newsrooms, responsible journalists recognize the importance of taking the time to review the accuracy of every story before posting it to the public. Handling retractions. Most media outlets have a straightforward rule: if you publish or broadcast an error and subsequently learn of your mistake, you correct it. This is a sound journalistic policy, though it is not a complete defense to a libel claim. If you called Charlie Clayson a thief yesterday, apologizing today will not undo all the harm it has caused to his reputation. In Maryland, there is no statute regarding retractions, though the courts have held a retraction can be considered in determining the damages a plaintiff has suffered. Further, such retractions should be drafted carefully, especially where the original false report has hurt someone’s reputation. To the extent possible, a publisher or broadcaster should try to avoid repeating the libelous statement and just set the record straight. A well-meaning correction may inadvertently compound the damage to a plaintiff or, worse, admit the publisher or broadcaster was negligent in making the statement at issue, when in fact, a reporter had sound justification for the original story. It is advisable to consult with an attorney when preparing such corrections. Record retention. There is great disagreement among journalists and First Amendment attorneys about whether reporters should save their notes. Reporters are often shocked when they learn, after being sued, their notes (and recordings and unused video) in most cases will have to be turned over to the plaintiff’s lawyer. The most common exception is where a confidential source would be revealed. A policy on record retention is best left to each individual publisher or broadcaster. But, whatever your policy (keep all notes, throw them all away, or keep them under certain circumstances), it is best to adhere to that policy. A plaintiff’s lawyer will have a field day in court if your company’s policy is to retain all notes and you just happened to throw away the only pieces of paper containing an interview with a critical news source who supports your story. Promises of Confidentiality. Reporters and editors must be careful what they promise sources. The First Amendment does not prevent a source from suing when a publication or radio/TV station breaks its reporter’s promise of confidentiality to that source. Absolute confidentiality is just one example of the types of promises that could spark a legal fire. If a reporter agrees a source’s statements are “off the record,” publishing those statements and the identity of the source who made them could provoke a lawsuit. Promising a favorable article or promising to let the source review their quotes prior to publication and failing to follow through may lead a disgruntled source to sue. If a source does insist on conditions before granting an interview, be precise as to what those conditions are. Get them in writing, if possible, or record their consent and those conditions. At the very least, such precautions can help avoid the inevitable dispute between the reporter and


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