Posted by YDR Insider Behind the scenes
Why it matters that journalists and news organizations fight subpeonas to testify in trials
Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim’s refusal to testify at the Jerry Sandusky trial — and the context behind why she was subpoenaed in the first place — reveals an important dynamic between journalists and the institutions they cover.
A Patriot-News story explains that when Ganim, having done tons of reporting on the Sandusky grand jury investigation (for which she eventually won a Pulitzer prize), called the attorney general’s office for comment, the office told her the paper could be charged with obstructing justice if it didn’t provide Ganim’s reporting to investigators.
Stop right here.
What AG’s office is saying is: Do our work for us. If you’ve already investigated the case, we want what you have, because then we won’t have to go out and get it ourselves.
That’s asking a journalist and/or news organization to essentially join forces with the state, which means tossing away its independence. Had Ganim and the Patriot-News done so, they would have lost their credibility to report on the Sandusky investigation; you could no longer be sure whether their reports were independent or were part of the state’s investigation.
That’s why the Patriot-News sought to quash the subpoena, and that’s why Ganim refused to testify.
A lot of journalists — including many of us at the YDR — know the feeling. Our correspondent who covered Dover Area School Board when it discussed intelligent design was subpeonaed during the Dover intelligent design trial by the ACLU.
We’ve gotten calls in other, less-high-profile cases from lawyers who say: We see you wrote about this case I’m involved in. We want your reporter’s notes.
We say: We published a story. Those are the reporter’s notes. Feel free to look up the story and see for yourself.
In some cases, the court will agree to accept, in lieu of testimony, a signed affidavit saying that the facts in the story were true.
In the Dover case, our correspondent refused to testify and our lawyers fought the subpoena. Ultimately, a compromise was reached: The correspondent would be compelled to testify only to the facts that were in the story. That meant that he could be asked if what he reported was what he saw and heard, for example, and of course the answer would be yes.
It wasn’t a perfect solution but it was the best outcome under the circumstances. It maintained our independence from either side in the story, which was crucial to our credibility.