Avoiding Legal Problems, Step 1: Interview Notes Deadline

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Student newspapers have two ways to avoid legal problems. Your students can never print anything controversial, creative or of interest to their readers, or you can teach your students how to write about controversy responsibly.

This responsibility begins long before the story is printed. Having your editors check the interview notes of the reporters can quickly reveal that the students haven’t talked to the all the right people to get a balanced story. It gives time to check out possible liability and to get permission to use quotes in place.

It also prevents procrastination, always a problem for all of us.

Students often only talk to their friends, or, worse yet, use the internet and don’t localize the story by talking to students, administrators or local sources. Brainstorming sources and questions can help get students off in the right directions.

Have your editors negotiate reasonable individual story deadlines for these notes and stick to them. Extending deadlines needs to be done ahead of time and in extreme cases only. If a student isn’t “dead” for missing a deadline, deadlines don’t mean a thing.

Interview skills are a sellable skill and one that journalism classes teach well. You might remind your administrators that, although they might prefer not to answer students’ questions about controversial topics, the students are really learning important skills that will help them in all sorts of situations throughout their lives.

Role playing interview situations with beginners can teach those skills and can be loads of fun as well.

Adding “interview notes” to the list of deadlines can help get things moving early and make sure that stories are well balanced and have the important information that will avoid legal problems when the story is published.
Fern Valentine, MJE

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