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Reporters Committee releases subpoena survey results

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
Reporters Committee releases subpoena survey results 03/22/99 VIRGINIA--Broadcasters receive the majority of subpoenas issued against the news media and comply…

Reporters Committee releases subpoena survey results


VIRGINIA–Broadcasters receive the majority of subpoenas issued against the news media and comply with most of them, while newspapers receive fewer subpoenas and are more often successful at negotiating their withdrawal, according to a new report from The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Broadcasters received 71 percent of the subpoenas reported for 1997 and complied with 73 percent of them. Fewer than half of the 597 respondents to the survey (187) were broadcasters, yet broadcasters received much more than half of all reported subpoenas (1,941 out of 2,725, or 71 percent). Newspapers managed to negotiate the withdrawal of nearly half of the subpoenas they received, but broadcasters negotiated withdrawal only 17 percent of the time.

More than half of the news organizations responding to the survey received at least one subpoena in 1997. These news organizations reported a total of 2,725 subpoenas from government lawyers and private litigants demanding testimony, notes, outtakes, and other information.

Broadcast and print outlets dealt with subpoenas differently. Television stations fully complied with demands for information in 1,412 instances (73 percent of the time); newspapers fully complied with only 177 subpoenas (23 percent). When they challenged subpoenas in court, both print and broadcast outlets were successful approximately 75 percent of the time.

“Broadcast news operations deliver their unique product through a highly visible medium, and perhaps that explains why they attract the lion’s share of subpoenas,” said Jane E. Kirtley, Executive Director of The Reporters Committee. “But fighting subpoenas doesn’t have to mean a full court battle. Broadcasters could learn a lesson from their print colleagues: never underestimate the power of persuasion.”

The report, Agents of Discovery, is the first of three reports on the incidence of subpoenas served on the news media. This is the second incarnation of a project undertaken by The Reporters Committee, compiled in three separate Agents of Discovery reports in 1991, 1993, and 1995.

The current project is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight Foundation makes national grants in journalism, education and arts and culture. Its fourth program, community initiatives, is concentrated in the 26 communities where the Knight brothers published newspapers, but the Foundation is wholly separate from and independent of those newspapers.