The News & Observer in Raleigh was my journalism home for most of the 1990s. Despite staff and budget cuts, it’s still a great paper. So, I find this libel ruling extra disturbing. From the Columbia Journalism Review:
JOURNALISTS ACROSS THE COUNTRY are assessing the fallout a week after a North Carolina jury awarded nearly $6 million in libel verdicts against The Raleigh News & Observer and one of its reporters.
The case seems to provide more evidence that the growing unpopularity of media may translate into less-sympathetic jury pools when news organizations face lawsuits. Adding to worries among newsroom leaders are the ways outsiders, including jurors on the N&O case, interpret internal communications among reporters, sources, and editors.
I would say watch out what you say in an email — or be prepared to defend it in court. Still even the most benign comment can be taken out of context. More from CJR:
After reading about the N&O trial, Barry Yeoman, a North Carolina journalist who does plenty of investigative work, started looking through old emails among editors about certain stories he covered. Investigative journalism is a collaborative process, he tells me. It’s messy, with a lot of rough edges rubbing up against each other. You sharpen ideas, and some of those ideas end up getting scrapped.
“So if somebody looked at my emails out of context, they may see a point in my thinking where either I have proposed something beyond where the facts may go, or I’ve proposed something that is too timid,” he says. “It is in the honest conversation that I can push the boundaries and an editor can push me back. Or I can arrive short of the line, and an editor can beckon me forward. And it is a dance that happens backstage so that the final product is absolutely true.”
Yeoman says he does worry one email or another he wrote to an editor could be misinterpreted if it ever got in front of a jury. But in many cases, he says he will still write it. “You need to put your thoughts out there if you’re going to get the feedback and the dynamic back and forth that story development needs,” he says.
As for The News & Observer, the paper has vowed to appeal, and it stands by its coverage as accurate and valuable to the community. “Our 2010 stories about the SBI raised important questions about how that agency investigates and how agents testify at trial,” N&O editor John Drescher said in a statement. “After the stories were published, numerous changes were made in how the SBI and the state crime lab work.”
“The N&O has not and will not shy away from reporting on tough issues important to North Carolina,” he added. “We will appeal the jury’s decision and look forward to discussing these stories with the appellate courts.”