Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reporter notes: A blessing and a curse

By Alison Noon

In the First Amendment/Public Records session at APME's 2011 Conference, the idea of concealing sources behind a veil of irrefutable public records is presented as an ideal alternative to a subpoena.

Contributing greatly to the discussion of public records in modern journalism is Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network Editor Laura Frank.

The importance of records, she says, does nothing to inhibit attempts to restrict access to them.

Post-September 11, 2001, the security of federal documents has been tightened because, in Frank's experience, some information is being withheld for the supposed conservation of the country.

Privacy laws, too, she continues, are popping up and, "seem to trump all others."

Perhaps, then, pin-needle sources cannot be concealed in a haystack of public records?

Frank's examination of this situation offers optimism for reporters who find themselves in it:

Although there is no absolute protection to keep a reporter from having to testify, she suggests that government is actually moving in the right direction for the American journalist. Among other things, information is being recorded not more accurately, but more regularly.

So, how can reporters remain protected while also safeguarding their sources? The First Amendment panel states that making all ordinary reporting within a journalistic institution a consistent practice will be a first defense again any subpoena.

Such "consistency" of note-taking varies across the board of Associated Press Media Editors, even within the panel.

Dave Tomlin believes fully in the protection of notes, majorly for the use of the actual reporter.

Frank admits that she keeps her most valuable notes under the stairs within her home. Fellow panel member Steve Zansberg half-jokingly offers that cleaning out the alcove once it reaches capacity, much like a desk drawer, could be a consistent practice.

Zansberg states that while notes may be an irreplaceable part of the storytelling and fact-proving process, cellphone recording devices and landlines (let alone their online counterparts such as Vocaroo) are not secure methods. Despite privacy laws, the details of a phone conversation, location, or data are easily compromised by government and police officials.

It appears to me, then, that truly safe and effective note-taking must be done in its earliest form: the mighty pen.

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