A dozen tips to avoid being burned by a hot story

As more student media move from being merely a showcasefor football players and prom queens to being serious news organizations,not afraid to address controversial or sensitive subjects, theyface many of the hazards that have long confronted their commercialcounterparts: threats of libel lawsuits, invasion of privacy claims,charges of bias, etc. While such problems are daunting, they neednot be crippling. With the exercise of proper caution, the risksof covering a hot, or sensitive, story can be significantly reduced.Toward that end, the Student Press Law Center offers our suggestions for how you can avoid getting burned when the story you are covering is a hot one.

Activate your common sense

While the nitty-grittydetails of libel or privacy law can be confusing, the main ideasare fairly straightforward, generally conforming to common sense.For example, libel law in a nutshell: Don’t publish thingsthat aren’t true or that you don’t have the evidence to reasonablysupport and don’t be a sloppy reporter. Privacy law: don’tpublish or gather information that is nobody else’s business.Common sense also dictates that if you don’t understand somethingor if a story simply doesn’t make sense ask enough questions ofenough people until it does. If you are confused, rest assuredthat your readers will be as well.

Remember your role as a journalist

Your job is toaccurately relate the facts of a story to your readers. Go intoa story with an open mind and not just looking for informationthat supports any preconceived version of the story that you mighthave. Your job is to find and report the facts as they exist.Do not be content with anything less. Good reporting is hard work.Be prepared to invest the time and energy necessary to get thestory right. No excuses. If you’re not willing or can’t do so,leave the story for someone else.

Take good notes

The “Golden Oldie” oflibel lawyer advice. Record facts and interviews scrupulously,including who said what and when. If you know you are a weak notetaker, invest in a tape recorder.

Documents, documents, documents

Get it in writing.If your source tells you during an interview that she acquiredher information from an internal memo, ask for a copy of the memo.And then read it to make sure that what your source told you jibeswith what’s in the memo. Also, whenever possible, cite a publicrecord as your source for information. In most cases, doing sowill protect you from liability even if it later turns out theinformation contained in the public record was wrong.

Don’t overstate the facts

You are a reporter nota salesman. Get rid of the “bigger is better” mentality.Your football coach who can’t account for $1,000 of the team’sbudget does not need to be labeled “corrupt” or the”ring-leader of the largest financial scandal in school history.””Two sources” is not “many sources” or “anumber or sources” – it is “two sources.” And itis perfectly okay for a problem to just be a “problem”and not a “crisis.” You get the idea. Finally, you shouldgenerally avoid the temptation to interpret the facts or reacha conclusion or an opinion for your readers. In covering a sensitivestory, it is safer to let the facts speak for themselves.

Don’t overstate the credibility of a source.

Eitherto yourself or to your readers. When interviewing a source, askyourself if you think he’s telling the truth. Does he have a reputationas a liar? Does he have any reason to harm the subject? If youare relying on statistical data or some other published report,establish that source’s reliability. If, for example, the mannerin which the statistics were compiled has been reasonably questioned,say so in your story. Remember that one exceptionally crediblesource is worth far more than a dozen semi-credible sources. Finally,anonymous sources should be used sparingly. And at least youshould know the identity of your confidential source.

Always give the subject of your story an opportunityto present his or her side

Not only does this give a storyan essential element of fairness, it also provides you with anopportunity to catch – or at least confirm – parts of a storythat may be subject to debate or question.

Eliminate the non-essential

Sensitive stories arenot the place to show off your literary talents. Leave the floweryprose and melodrama for the features page. Write carefully andpurposefully. Edit out sources or subjects that do not contributeto the “core” of a story. They are potential plaintiffs.Delete unnecessary (even though interesting) allegations. Tellwhat you know and how you know it. No more. No less.

Seek the input of others

Prior to publication, askothers to look at your story and offer their criticisms or suggestions.After working endless hours on a story, “fresh eyes”are essential for catching gaps, inconsistencies, confusing phraseology,mistaken attributions and all of the other small traps that areforever hidden to one who has already read the copy twenty times.This is also the time to contact your adviser, an attorney, theStudent Press Law Center or someone else well-versed in medialaw if you have specific questions about the legality of a story.An ounce of prevention sure beats sitting in court.

Prior to publication, step back and look at the “BigPicture”

Forget the little details upon which you havefocused so long and hard. Read the story through one last time.Taken as a whole, are there any obvious questions you failed toask or glaring sources you didn’t contact (for example, a personin a room who witnessed a key – and disputed – meeting)? Lookat your story from different points of view. Do you believe eachof your subjects and sources would feel they were treated fairly(even if they didn’t like the story itself)? What about headlinesand subheads – are they fair and accurate? Are the graphics, photosand accompanying captions correct and not misleading? The bottomline: make sure the story makes sense to you and fairly presentsthe facts as you know them.

After publication, respond to complaints courteouslyand fairly

Studies have shown that a person who perceivesthat he or she has been treated rudely or arrogantly by a mediaorganization is far more likely to sue than one who believes thatthey have been shown the proper respect. Select one person – preferablya “people person” – to whom all complaints should bereferred. While that person should not admit fault or provideinformation about specific newsgathering practices, he or sheshould listen carefully to the caller’s complaints, promise toinvestigate the matter – and then do so. Where a correction orretraction is appropriate, publish it in a timely fashion.

Finally, if you need help – legal or otherwise – don’tbe afraid to ask for it

As a student, you’re not supposedto know it all. And ask for that help sooner rather than later.It’s much easier to put out a brush fire than a forest fire.