Print Issue Volume 93 - No. 2

Avalanche or Undue Alarm? An Empirical Study of Subpoenas Received by the News Media

For more than thirty years, proponents and opponents of a federal reporter’s shield law have debated the necessity of a privilege for members of the news media and have disagreed sharply about the frequency with which subpoenas are issued to the press. Most recently, in the wake of several high-profile contempt cases, proponents have pointed to a perceived “avalanche” of subpoenas, while opponents have contended that the receipt of subpoenas by reporters remains very rare. This article summarizes the results of an empirical study on the question. The study gathered data on subpoenas received by daily newspapers and network-affiliated television newsrooms in a single calendar year, and then compared those data to numbers from an industry survey of the same population five years earlier. The article concludes that subpoenas are issued to the media with some regularity and that they are not limited to the media organizations or the substantive issues that have been involved in the highest-profile recent cases. In at least some categories—most notably subpoenas arising out of federal proceedings and subpoenas seeking confidential material—subpoenas to the press appear to be on the increase.

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