Wick Communications

Email, libel and us

In journalism on October 27, 2016 at 2:09 pm

raleigh

Half Moon Bay Review staff writer Kaitlyn Bartley pointed me to something she termed “a sobering read.” And boy is it ever.

The post unfurls the story of a $6 million libel judgment against the Raleigh News and Observer. The judgment — including six figures for punitive damages — hinged on the internal communications between N&O staffers prior to publication of a damning peek into the State Bureau of Investigations. I’m talking about emails. The court read emails between newspaper colleagues, and that led the jury to decide the newspaper acted with malice.

I’ve said it before, and here as well, and I’ll say it again: The emails we send to one another can be subpoenaed and that could be an embarrassing thing. Every snarky email you send can be used against you and could even threaten the viability of your news organization.

In the case at hand, emails that I am pretty sure were innocuous newsroom communications looked damning in black and white. From the CJR report:

Assistant features editor Brooke Cain, who was a news researcher in 2010, was asked about her emails with reporter Mandy Locke in preparation for the story about SBI agent Beth Desmond. In a June 2010 email asking Cain to make a public records search, Locke wrote that she had narrowed her focus to a few SBI agents and firearms analysts “that we’re bearing down on.” Also in June, Locke had learned that Desmond had once been a ballet dancer with the Juilliard Dance Ensemble. “Bingo!” Locke wrote to Cain. The researcher responded: “Sounds like an excellent main character for a crime novel.” Locke wrote: “How in the world this woman went from ballet to firearms identification work is beyond me.” …

That is the kind of thing that is said in newsrooms every day. I’m sure cops talk about suspects that way, bakers talk about their customers in a similar fashion and church secretaries sometimes use harsher language in their gossip. So why the fuss?

The report suggests that juries may be more willing to level big libel damages in an environment in which it seems everyone is blaming “the media” for everything. Uh-oh. Time was, responsible people did the opposite. Juries generally didn’t seek to put a news organization out of business for making a mistake because they knew the news organization was an important institution in the community.

Those days may be over. And the implications are dire.

The CJR report quotes researcher and academician James Hamilton, whose book I mentioned earlier. Hamilton’s book focuses on the heretofore not-fully-understood value of investigative journalism. Society has benefited in tangible ways from dozens of N&O reports through the years. Those benefits could be lost if the newspaper experiences a chill and finds the cost too high to deliver that kind of journalism.

Because the stakes are so high, we should take the same precautions they take in other industries. Be careful with your written correspondence. Don’t dog the mayor in an email to your editor. Remember: It might be read in court.

Clay

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