Newsgathering techniques may endanger First Amendment rights

By Kaylene A. Karnopp
J Alumni News staff

Six panelists debated Friday, April 7, whether competition, ratings and new technology such as the Internet drive the media and force them to lose sight of their ethics in the race to break a story first. The panelists disagreed about whether reporters have traded accuracy and integrity for invasive newsgathering techniques that make their sources feel like hunted prey.

“Journalism is the only business that makes lawyers look good,” said William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky’s former lawyer and one of the panelists. The six panelists took part in a roundtable First Amendment debate, “Freedom at Risk: The First Amendment Under Siege,” during the Nebraska Press Association’s 126th annual convention at the Cornhusker Hotel.

In addition to Ginsburg, panelists were Paul Duke, former moderator for “Washington Week in Review”; Lyle Denniston, U.S. Supreme Court reporter for the Baltimore Sun; Josephine Potuto, a University of Nebraska law professor; Richard Shugrue, a professor of constitutional law at Creighton University; Eugene Crump, former Nebraska deputy attorney general. Norman Krivosha, retired Nebraska Chief Justice, acted as moderator. Panelists debated journalists’ rights granted to them by the First Amendment. They also debated whether the courts should more strictly interpret the Constitution to protect citizens from media that are unscrupulous and intrusive.

Ginsburg said he experienced an intrusive media firsthand while defending Lewinsky. Reporters and photographers followed his every step. They camped on his lawn. They harassed his wife and children.

“The way people get the news is getting out of control,” Ginsburg said. While he was defending Lewinsky, Ginsburg said, reporters used cherry pickers, a type of lift truck, to see into his home and take pictures.

Ginsburg believes the press is essential in a democracy and that its rights shouldn’t be abridged. But he suggested some control might be placed on the press so it doesn’t step on individuals’ rights.

“The Constitution was designed to be elastic — to encompass change,” Ginsburg said. “I just hope we don’t stretch it until it tears, because then the Constitution will be broken.

“If the press doesn’t regulate itself, it could be the cause of that tear.” Ginsburg said when the country’s founders wrote the Constitution, they didn’t realize how vast the media would become. They didn’t know that by the year 2000, people would have access to millions of newspapers and other news sources simply by the click of a button.

The growth of media corporations and new technology has put more pressure on reporters, Potuto said. Competition has turned reporters’ focus away from making sure a story is accurate toward breaking a story first.

Potuto said the Supreme Court probably wouldn’t limit what the media said but might look more closely at their newsgathering tactics and the effect competition has on their newsgathering practices.

“The media are in great danger of regulation that will intrude upon how you do your job,” she told the audience of editors, publishers and newspaper staff. “Most of the interesting law questions with regard to the media have no regard to constitutional law. The questions pertain more to how the media does its job.”

Shugrue defended the press and said it’s essentially the fourth branch of government, keeping the other three branches in check.

But the intrusive methods some journalists use have led to an increase in lawsuits and challenges to the media’s right to free speech, Denniston said.

“The way we gather news is a source of increasing liability for us due to our lack of restraint.”

Denniston blamed the increase in lawsuits on the media’s preoccupation with scandal and its focus on getting high ratings. He also said part of the blame comes from the media’s turning away from informing the public toward entertaining the public. It’s what some media critics now call “infotainment.”

“So much of the television news is show biz news,” Denniston said. “It’s ratings driven. It’s designed to be a show and not designed to inform. It leads to a decline in reporting quality.

“So many people in the news have become celebrities that we’re more interested in their lives than what they have to say. It’s diluting the news. The news now tries to titillate rather than inform the public.”

Denniston said more focus is given to what the television broadcasters look like than to the news itself. Media integrity can be recovered, he said, when journalists take a step back from sensational stories and first examine the source of the information and question a source’s credibility. Denniston said it’s a step toward practicing sound editorial judgment.

Ginsburg ended the discussion by challenging the public. He said citizens had a responsibility to filter the masses of information thrown at them via the Internet, television and newspapers and decide which news source has the most integrity — which one is more focused on informing rather than entertaining.

“Can we, as a nation, afford to overlook the spin on stories and see the few fine journalists that are out there?” he asked. “It’s our job to.”