A dozen tips to avoid being burned by a hot story

As more student media move from being merely a showcase for football players and prom queens to serious news organizations, not afraid to address controversial or sensitive subjects, they face many of the hazards that have long confronted their commercial counterparts: threats of libel lawsuits, invasion of privacy claims, charges of bias, etc. While such problems are daunting, they need not be crippling. With the exercise of proper caution, the risks of 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-gritty details of libel or privacy law can be confusing, the main ideas are fairly straightforward, generally conforming to common sense. For example, Libel Law in a Nutshell: (1) Don’t publish things that aren’t true or that you don’t have the evidence to reasonably support and (2) Don’t be a sloppy reporter. Privacy Law in a Nutshell: Don’t publish or gather information that is nobody else’s business.

Common sense also dictates that if you don’t understand something or if a story simply doesn’t make sense ask enough questions of enough people until it does. If you are confused, rest assured that your readers will be as well.

Remember your role as a journalist

Your job is to accurately relate the facts of a story to your readers. Go into a story with an open mind and not just looking for information that supports any preconceived version of the story that you might have. 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 the story right. No excuses. If you’re not willing or can’t do so — be honest with yourself (no shame) — leave the story for someone else.

Take good notes

The “Golden Oldie” of libel lawyer advice. Record facts and interviews scrupulously, including who said what and when. If you know you are a weak notetaker, use your smartphone to tape a phone interview, getting permission where necessary. Be sure to verify that identify of the people you interview. Ask to see their student ID or driver license. It’s also a good way to ensure that get the correct spelling.

Documents, documents, documents

Get it in writing. If your source tells you during an interview that she acquired her 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 jibes with what’s in the memo. Also, whenever possible, cite a public record as your source for information. In most cases, doing so will protect you from liability even if it later turns out the information contained in the public record was wrong.

Don’t overstate the facts

You are a reporter not a salesperson. Get rid of the “bigger is better” mentality. Your football coach who can’t account for $1,000 of the team’s budget 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 “a number or sources” – it is “two sources.” And it is perfectly okay for a problem to just be a “problem” and not a “crisis.” You get the idea. Finally, you should generally avoid the temptation to interpret the facts or reach a conclusion or an opinion for your readers. In covering a sensitive story, it is safer to let the facts speak for themselves.

Don’t overstate the credibility of a source.

Either to yourself or to your readers. When interviewing sources, ask yourself if you think they’re telling the truth. Does she have a reputation as a liar? Does he have any reason to harm the subject? If you are relying on statistical data or some other published report (particularly those you find online), establish that source’s reliability. If, for example, the manner in which the statistics were compiled has been reasonably questioned, say so in your story. Remember that one exceptionally credible source is worth far more than a dozen semi-credible sources. Finally, anonymous sources should be used sparingly. And at least you must know the identity of your confidential source, taking special care to evaluate his or her credibility. If their name isn’t attached to the story, they may have less to lose by stretching the truth.

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

Interviewing the subject of a sensitive story (particularly if it’s unfavorable) can be difficult. But it must be attempted. Not only does this give a story an essential element of fairness, it also provides you with an opportunity to catch – or confirm – parts of a story that may be subject to debate or question. Give the person ample opportunity to share their story. If they choose not to comment, report that in a neutral, straightforward way in the story.

Eliminate the non-essential

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

Seek the input of others

Prior to publication, ask others 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 are forever hidden to one who has already read the copy twenty times. This is also the time to contact your adviser, an attorney, the Student Press Law Center or someone else well-versed in media law 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 “Big Picture”

Forget the little details upon which you have focused so long and hard. Read the story through one last time. How do you feel? (Listen to that.) Taken as a whole, are there any questions you still have or anyone you wished you heard from but didn’t contact (for example, a person in a room who witnessed a key – and disputed – meeting)? Look at your story from different points of view. Do you believe each of your subjects and sources would feel they were treated fairly (even if they didn’t like the story itself)? What about headlines and subheads – are they fair and accurate? Are the graphics, photos and accompanying captions correct and not misleading? How about teasers or planned social media to push the story?

Finally, take a deep breath and ask yourself: Have I done the best I could to find and fairly present the facts as I know them?

And then sincerely listen for the answer.

If the answer is “yes,”  you’re ready (yes, you are) to push “publish.” Give yourself and staff some sincere appreciation — and go get some sleep.

After publication, respond to complaints courteously and fairly

Studies have shown that a person who perceives that he or she has been treated rudely or arrogantly by a media organization is far more likely to sue than one who believes that they have been shown the proper respect. Select one person – preferably a “people person” – to whom all complaints should be referred. While that person should not admit fault or provide information about specific newsgathering practices, he or she should listen carefully to the caller’s complaints (taking good notes), promise to investigate the matter – and then do so and respond. If you find issues or have questions, you may want to seek legal counsel. Where a correction or retraction is appropriate, publish it in a timely fashion.

Finally, if you need help – legal or otherwise – don’t be afraid to ask for it

As a student, you’re not supposed to 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.

[This tip sheet was first published by Mike Hiestand in 1996 and has been slightly modified over the years, most recently in November 2019.]