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Media Subpoenas: Impact, Perception, and Legal Protection in the Changing World of American Journalism

RonNell Andersen Jones

Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School

May 19, 2009

Washington Law Review, Forthcoming

Forty years ago, at a time when the media was experiencing enormous professional change and a surge of subpoena activity, First Amendment scholar Vincent Blasi investigated the perceptions of members of the press and the impact of subpoenas within American newsrooms in a study that quickly came to be regarded as a watershed in media law. That empirical data is now a full generation old, and American journalism faces a new critical moment. The traditional press once again finds itself facing a surge of subpoenas and once again finds itself at a time of intense change - albeit on a different trajectory - as readership and public reputation plummet. As the dialogue on this complicated topic once again reaches full volume, intensified by a series of hotly contested federal reporter’s privilege bills, the question of the appropriate legal rule again is inextricably intertwined with the question of the real-world impact of subpoenas on the operations of the media. This 'law-in-action' article aims to offer the legislators and policymakers of today what Blasi offered them four decades ago. It reports the results of a large-scale empirical study, presenting both quantitative and qualitative assessments of the effects that subpoenas have on daily newspapers and local television news operations, and re-explores the questions of changing legal climate and media awareness of legal protection. The article concludes that media subpoenas have a substantial impact on newsgathering, warranting federal legislative attention. But it also concludes that the traditional press is ill-informed of the contours of its own legal protection, which may compound the difficulties the media experiences in this area.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 102

Keywords: media, subpoenas, reporter's privilege, shield law, communications law, mass communications, First Amendment, press, journalism, newspaper, broadcast, law in action, empirical

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Date posted: May 24, 2009 ; Last revised: June 9, 2015

Suggested Citation

Jones, RonNell Andersen, Media Subpoenas: Impact, Perception, and Legal Protection in the Changing World of American Journalism (May 19, 2009). Washington Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1407105

Contact Information

RonNell Andersen Jones (Contact Author)
Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School ( email )
424 JRCB
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602
United States
801-422-2032 (Phone)
801-422-0234 (Fax)

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