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Radio news chief not covered by shield law

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    News Media Update         OHIO         Confidentiality/Privilege    

Radio news chief not covered by shield law

  • An Ohio appeals court panel found that a news director was not gathering news when she spoke with an anonymous source.

March 1, 2004 — A radio news director is not entitled to protection under the reporter’s privilege statute in Ohio because she was not acting as a reporter when she spoke with a confidential source, a state appeals court panel ruled last week.

The Sixth District Court of Appeals in Toledo upheld an order that required Tricia Tischler, news director for WVKS-FM, to reveal her source of information that led to comments aired on the radio station.

The case began when a reporter for The (Toledo) Blade brought a lawsuit for defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the producer and host of WVKS’s “The Breakfast Club,” as well as the station’s owner, Clear Channel Communications. Reporter Sandra Svoboda claimed that host Denny Schaffer made false statements in 1999 about a purported affair she had with John Block, the co-publisher of the Blade.

Tischler was added as a defendant in 2000, after she gave a deposition in which she admitted to receiving information from a confidential source that Svoboda and Block were dating. Tischler refused a Toledo judge’s order to identify her source, citing the state’s shield law as an absolute protection against compelled identification of confidential sources.

Judge Richard Knepper, writing the 2-1 decision for the appeals panel on Feb. 27, held that several factors led the court to determine Tischler was not acting in her capacity as news director at the time she spoke to her source. She asked no investigatory questions, made no record of the phone call, did not consider the information newsworthy at the time she received it, and did not broadcast the information during a news segment of The Breakfast Club, the court said.

The appeals court further held that Tischler did not obtain the information “in the course of [her] employment,” as required by the state shield law.

The court also found that Tischler’s source of information was not a “source”of “information,” as defined by the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. “[Tischler]’s contact did not have first-hand knowledge of such relationship, and had only heard of the alleged relationship from an unknown third-party,” the court’s majority wrote. “A rumor, however, is not ‘information’ because the person perpetuating the rumor lacks any ‘knowledge’ regarding the bases for the rumor.”

Judge Judith Lanzinger, in her dissent, criticized the majority’s use of a dictionary as contrary to the legislative intent of the statute’s words. The effect, Lanzinger wrote, is that “under the majority’s definition of ‘information,’ a source may be reluctant to tell what he or she knows because the source may not have a sufficient basis of knowledge.

“This is a dangerous narrowing of the statutory privilege,” she added.

In an Feb 28 article in The Blade, Thomas Plentz, an attorney for Clear Channel Communications, said he would recommend that his clients appeal the decision.

(Svoboda v. Clear Channel Communications, Inc.; Media Counsel: Thomas Pletz, Neema Bell, Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, Toledo, Ohio) KM

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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