Responsible press freedom. When papers print corrections, media credibility improves

ON July 13, the New York Times did an amazing thing: It admitted it was wrong - at the top of Page 1. Newspaper corrections by themselves are not all that amazing. The Times and most others routinely publish retractions. But they seldom, if ever, give them such prominent display.

The story was a big one - as was the retraction. Two days before the correction, the paper had reported that Lt. Col. Oliver North - testifying before the joint congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra affair - said that neither the President nor Congress was to be informed about a secret fund that William Casey, former Central Intelligence Agency director, wanted to create to underwrite intelligence operations.

It turned out, however, that the colonel gave no testimony that Mr. Casey intended to keep the fund secret from the President. He had only been asked whether Mr. Reagan or others knew about the fund.

For years, media specialists have advised the press to come clean - to admit mistakes openly, publicly, and in print. Such action could only serve to improve the media's sagging credibility.

Some surveys indicate that most readers, listeners, and viewers tend to accept as ``fact'' most Fourth Estate reports. Many still believe, however, that the press distorts (sometimes deliberately), manipulates headlines to sell papers or attract an audience, and peddles a left-of-center political message.

When press organizations are slapped with megabucks libel awards, some people automatically conclude that ``they had it coming.'' Here again, media studies indicate that trial court juries tend to dole out gigantic fiscal punishments to the media in defamation cases, regardless of whether or not the plaintiffs' claims meet the constitutional standards for malice.

But what about judges and legislatures? Are the legal system and state lawmakers as tough on the media as the public or its jury surrogates?

Trends indicate that they are not. Appellate judges throw out - or scale down - monumental libel judgments against the press more than half the time.

And through the years, 26 states have passed shield laws that protect the media, at least partially, against prosecution for failing to reveal their confidential sources.

A few even offer protections for nonconfidential materials and sources.

The issue came up recently in New York. And in what was reported as a significant - but not crushing - press defeat, the Empire State's highest court ruled that its 17-year-old shield law applied only to confidential materials. Journalists' notes or other information obtained from nonconfidential sources are not covered by the media protection statute of 1970, the Court of Appeals declared.

Surprisingly, media groups didn't cry foul - at least not too loudly.

Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, did lament the ruling. She pointed out, however, that it didn't completely rule out protections for nonconfidential sources. It just said that the New York statute, as now written, didn't specifically cover this area.

Also she said that the New York court did not reject the so-called Branzburg test. In 1972, the United States Supreme Court, in Branzburg v. Hayes, suggested that to be subject to government subpoena, media material must be relevant to specific probable violation of the law; that there be compelling and overriding interest in the information; and that it cannot be obtained elsewhere.

The case in question involved outtakes of a television newscast of an interview with the husband of a woman who had disappeared. When her body was later found, the prosecutor sought the tape for a possible murder indictment against the husband. In the end, the indictment was made without the outtakes. The district attorney, however, said he would probably seek the materials for the trial.

Knight-Ridder, corporate owner of the upstate New York station, has not decided on future responses to prosecutorial requests. It is concerned that the appellate court ruling might encourage more subpoenas served on the media for notes, outtakes, photos, and other materials in the possession of journalists.

Meanwhile, Ms. Kirtley expects there will be challenges to shield laws elsewhere. For example, Pennsylvania's Supreme Court is now considering whether its shield law is applicable in libel cases.

A more basic question is whether shield laws are the best way to guarantee press freedom. ``A strong shield law can be a godsend,'' says Kirtley, ``but good, judge-made common law privilege can be better.'' Kirtley cites Florida as a state ``whose courts repeatedly recognize protections for reporters.''

Everette Dennis, executive director of the Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University, has great reservations about shield laws. ``Reporters should not have rights other citizens do not have,'' insists Mr. Dennis, former dean of the University of Oregon Journalism School. ``They can do their work very well within present laws ... and within the language of the First Amendment.''

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David Broder warns the press of the risks of using, or over-using, reporters' privileges. ``Ultimately ... every nonattributed source or fact strains the reporter-reader relationship,'' Mr. Broder writes in his new book, ``Behind the Front Page'' (Simon & Schuster). ``We have to make certain, case by case, that the gain in readers' understanding is worth the price.''

A Thursday column

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