Reporter's recording confiscated at veterans event

Ahnalese Rushmann | Newsgathering | Feature | April 9, 2009

A Washington D.C.-based radio reporter says his audio storage device was inappropriately confiscated Tuesday by Veterans Affairs officials after he interviewed a patient at a VA Medical Center forum.

VA officials claim they intervened after the reporter "took advantage" of the patient, who was undergoing medical treatment.

David Schultz, a reporter for WAMU 88.5, the local NPR affiliate, told the Reporters Committee he was covering a town hall forum on minority veterans' issues at the D.C. hospital after learning of the event through a press release. Soon after he entered the event, Schultz claimed, a VA public affairs official said he would need a release waiver from his interview subjects if he wanted to interview any forum attendees.

Katie Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said Schultz refused to listen to the VA officials' request for a signed waiver. By conducting an interview without a consent form, she said, the reporter violated the medical patient's privacy.

After hearing a certain patient speak at the event, Schultz said he approached him for an interview. Their talk was interrupted by a VA employee, who asked Schultz to hand over the sound card containing the interview. The journalist says he told the employee that the patient had a right to speak with the media, but the official summoned uniformed officers to step in. Neither Schultz nor the VA could say for sure what agency or department the officers represented.

Schultz said he called his editor, who advised him to turn over the sound card and take the rest of his recording equipment. But the VA employees demanded the reporter turn over all of his equipment, including a microphone, headphones and digital recorder, he said.  In the end, Schultz said, after negotiating with the officials, he handed over the sound card "under the impression [he] was going to get the card back that night."

At one point, an officer approached Schultz and told him he would not be prosecuted if he left the hospital grounds and was in fact free to go. Schultz said he was waiting at that point to see if he would get the sound card back.

Since the veteran Schultz had interviewed gave him his telephone number, Schultz said, he was able to finish up the talk with the patient the following day; Schultz's story aired on WAMU on Wednesday.

Roberts, spokeswoman for the VA, said the reporter "took advantage of the patient" in approaching him for an interview, causing "total disorientation." In addition, she said, Schultz did not identify himself as a reporter. 

Schultz maintains that he told the interviewee and VA officials he was a reporter.

Schultz's tape will be returned if the patient signs the consent form, Roberts said. The VA is willing to accommodate media requests, she said, "but [WAMU journalists] just refuse to talk with us about the consent form process."

WAMU's Jim Asendio, Schultz's editor, said WAMU lawyers are working on a letter demanding the return of the audio card. Asendio said he does not believe patient confidentiality was an issue at the time of the incident, since the event was public and the reporter identified himself.

A federal law, the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, makes it illegal for a government officer or employee to search for or seize a journalist's "work product materials."

Meanwhile, Schultz said he simply wants his storage device returned, since it contains additional news material.

"This is unlike any experience I've ever had," the reporter said.  "What made me really mad is that I know I did the right thing."