It is important for lawyers and journalists to work together in breaking controversial stories, panelists asserted at a Law School discussion Tuesday afternoon that brought together prominent journalists and lawyers from ABC News and The Washington Post.
The discussion, entitled “Covering Scandals,” analyzed the process of breaking high-profile stories from the points of view of two journalists and the lawyers assigned to defend their publications. Panelists included Brian Ross, ABC News chief investigative correspondent; John Zucker, ABC News senior vice president for law and regulation; Jeff Leen, The Washington Post investigations editor; and Eric Lieberman, The Washington Post vice president and general counsel. Panelists discussed the roles of and relationships between attorneys and journalists and the use of confidential sources.
Investigative techniques such as perusing government documents and using confidentiality can help in uncovering scandals, Leen said. The Post, he said, used an interconnected web of sources and documents to break stories like the connections between disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and members of Congress.
Lawyers make sure reporters stay within the boundaries of what is acceptable professionally, Leen said.
“You keep me on my toes,” he said with a nod to Lieberman, with whom he works at the Post.
Lieberman agreed that reporters and lawyers are part of the same effort to publish a “first-rate” paper. Ross pointed to the occasionally restrictive presence of lawyers during journalists’ attempts to tackle high-profile targets of investigations.
“I think of myself being able to cut through the corporate crap and the lawyer’s language,” he said.
But Zucker said he sees ensuring higher standards of journalism as part of his role as a lawyer.
“What we’re standing for is more precision, … more reporting,” he said.
Sometimes, Zucker said, more on-the-record sources are required for more credible articles. Anonymous sources make journalists more vulnerable to legal prosecution and suits by the objects of investigative reporting, he said.
Law students who attended the panel discussion said they found the event’s focus on the intersection of law and media unique and informative.
Nathanial Gleicher LAW ’09 said the panelists emphasized that both professions are working toward a common goal: quality journalism.
“They really managed to blend the problems both lawyers and reporters face,” he said.
Many panelists and student audience members interviewed said they support confidential-source protection and a possible federal shield law for journalists. Threat of prosecution prevents many journalists from reporting stories they should report, Gleicher claimed.
“Journalists are coming more and more under fire,” he said.
But Stephen Vaden LAW ’08 said he opposes unconditional legal immunity for journalists.
“No group should be placed above the law,” he said.
Sponsored by the Law and Media Program, the discussion was organized by five fellows of the program under the direction of faculty directors Jack Balkin and Robert Post. It was made possible by a grant from the Knight Foundation.