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Reporters Committee releases survey on incidence of media subpoenas

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Forty-five percent of newsroom responding to a survey reported receiving at least one subpoena in 2001, according to a report…

Forty-five percent of newsroom responding to a survey reported receiving at least one subpoena in 2001, according to a report issued this week by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The 2001 survey is the last in a three-part series that analyzed data every other year, starting in 1997. A previous three-part report studied the effects of subpoenas in 1989, 1991, and 1993. The most recent survey results show that the significant burden that subpoenas place on the media has not been noticeably reduced or modified over the last 14 years.

Three hundred nineteen news organizations responded to the survey and reported receiving a total of 823 subpoenas in 2001. The average number of subpoenas received by television stations in 2001 was 7.7. Newspapers received an average of 0.7 subpoenas.

“Television stations continue to be the most vulnerable to subpoenas,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish. “Prosecutors, defense counsel and civil litigators seem to believe that a jury will find evidence that appeared on television to be more persuasive than evidence from other witnesses. It’s a disturbing and burdensome reality.”

The survey, Agents of Discovery, was released May 15. The biennial report gathers subpoena information from media outlets across the country. A questionnaire sent to newsrooms asked them to report the number of subpoenas received in 2001 and how those subpoenas were resolved.

Many of the respondents said responding to the subpoenas required a considerable amount of time. Kay Lain of WGHP-TV in High Point, S.C., explained that each request involves “archive searches, locating tape, viewing tape and finding footage,” plus “paperwork to have [a] copy of [the] tape made,” time for drafting a cover letter and official declaration for the court, conversations with the station’s legal department, as well as discussions with the requesting party.” All in all, the process takes “several hours,” Lain said.

Several survey respondents voiced their view that resisting subpoenas on a consistent basis is the best way to avoid them. These respondents felt that aggressive approaches to subpoenas will result not only in subpoenas being quashed, but also will serve to deter future subpoenas.

Thomas Kearney of The Keene Sentinal in Keene, N.H., wrote: “Our experience: If you fight subpoenas effectively and intelligently, they arrive far less frequently.” Agents of Discovery can be found on the Reporters Committee Web site at www.rcfp.org/agents.