October 4, 2016

Documents add detail and confirm newsworthy information in your reporting process. These records might include anything from a photograph to a computer hard drive to internal documents belonging to a company or government entity.

When you come into possession of such items, you should know what legal issues you could face if you access, retain or use those materials. Here are a few ways to minimize your risk of a lawsuit or criminal prosecution when acquiring documents and other property for newsgathering purposes.

  • Don’t steal. Do not ever steal or illegally access documents, e-mails, cell phone calls, voice mails or electronic communications of any kind.
  • Don’t help others steal. Do not encourage or assist another person in the theft or interception of records.
  • Check trade secret law. Some proprietary company information can be legally protected against disclosure under trade secret law.
  • Check confidentiality agreements. Many employees and consultants have confidentiality agreements with their employers. While paying sources for information almost always raises ethical concerns, paying sources to violate confidentiality agreements is legally risky as well.
  • Be careful with government information. Act with caution when dealing with a source who is a present or former government employee or someone with special access to sensitive, national-security-related government information.
  • Know your “journalistic privilege” rights. Research whether you can assert a “journalistic privilege” to protect unpublished information. Many states offer protection for those who receive subpoenas requesting this information. These privileges arise from a number of different sources of law, including shield laws passed by state legislatures, the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions, and the common law.
  • Consider where you publish. Where you publish your work can affect your ability to protect your sources and information. In some states you can only invoke the privilege to protect your sources if you publish in traditional print or broadcast media. In other states, you need only publish through an entity that regularly distributes news.
  • Have a consistent document retention and destruction policy. Do not treat notes and records and other reporting materials that relate to stories that you believe are legally risky differently from how you treat your other reporting materials.

Taken from Newsgathering Law & Liability: A Guide for Reporting, a self-directed course by David Ardia and Geanne Belton at Poynter NewsU.

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Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current…
Vicki Krueger

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