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Reporter's promise of confidentiality upheld by court

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    NMU         TEXAS         Newsgathering         Aug 1, 2001    

Reporter’s promise of confidentiality upheld by court

  • A journalist who interviewed a girl who had been taken by her mother will not have to reveal her whereabouts to the father who had legal custody, an appellate court held.

A journalist who interviewed a 7-year-old girl who hid with her mother from the man who had legal custody has no duty to reveal their girl’s location, the First Texas Court of Appeals ruled on July 27 when it dismissed a lawsuit against KHOU-TV in Houston.

In August 1997, reporter Dan Lauk interviewed Brittany Ann Corcoran and her mother, Nikki-Maire Jones, while they hid from the child’s father who was granted custodial rights. The interview aired in November on the condition that Lauk not disclose their location.

The father, Gilbert Corcoran, sued KHOU-TV and Lauk for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violating a state law that imposes a civil penalty against anyone who aids or assists in the interference of custody.

A three-member panel of the court found that the media and the reporter were not negligent or otherwise responsible for the child’s abduction or concealment under Chapter 42 of the Family Code, according to an opinion written by Justice Sam Nuchia.

Upset by the court’s ruling, Larry Doherty, the father’s attorney, said he will file an appeal with the state Supreme Court.

“Where on Earth did somebody’s brain get screwed on to where it is more important to protect the press than it is to protect the lives, freedom and custody of children?” the attorney said. “If those two issues run head (on) with each other in these cases and our society says that the press is more important than our children — our society will perish in short order.”

The duty of journalists must be clearly defined so they can report unbiased and accurate news that the community can rely on, Lauk said.

“It is a very rare exigent circumstance which should cause a reporter to essentially step out of his role as a reporter and into the role of a protector of someone,” Lauk said.

Doherty said the journalist had no choice but to report the missing child.

“Dan Lauk was in charge of how that story was going to go and he has no option under that statute to ignore the safety of the child,” he said.

Lauk said he and the photographer weighed the severity of the promised confidentiality.

“Neither the photographer nor I had any sense that the little girl was being harmed in any way,” Lauk said. “There was no indication of physical or emotional abuse or anything like that, which would have put it into a different category.”


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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