Imagine the scenario…
Your editor gets a letter threatening legal action over an article published some months ago – they are claiming the article is not only defamatory in nature but their client has been repeatedly misquoted.
Understandably, your editor is nervous and demands to see your shorthand note of the interview and all notes taken down at the time in relation to the story. It’s a situation no journalist wants to find themselves in, but sadly it happens from time to time and, if you don’t pay attention to the way you organise your notebook, it can be disastrous.
Your shorthand notebook (if you can find it in that swollen bottom drawer stuffed full of notebooks which have not been taken home or destroyed) is your best line of defence against legal action, and carries great weight in court. What follows is a set of simple guidelines that all notebook users should take on board. We’ll start with a golden rule: think of your notebook not as your workbook but as evidence on which a major defamation trial depends.
What I mean by this is that you need to think not only about your notebook’s practicalities, but also about the way it will appear to third parties: is it neat? Does it look like the product of an organised worker? Is it easy to navigate? So, what will we need to ensure the answers to the above questions are a “yes” rather than a “no”.
1. Starting with the cover. Put the date at which the notebook is first used (and when it is complete, put the end date on the front as well).
2. Put your name and organisation on the cover.
3. When it is complete, on the reverse side of the cover, list the stories or tasks referred to within the notebook (this can make looking for the right notebook incredibly simple if you don’t remember the date of a story/task).
4. Now, using a ruler, draw a line vertically about a third of the way across the page, on every page (and reverse page) of your notebook. This is used for one of two purposes. First, if you are speaking to two people, or recording what two people say, you can divide what is said by each party on either side of the ruled margin. If you are just speaking to one person, the left hand side of the margin can be used for notes, ideas, further questions you might want to ask or partial transcriptions. I’ve seen many reporters just doing margins by freehand. I don’t recommend this because of the golden rule above – appearances matter, especially in court.
5. Number each and every page at the bottom of the page. This is to show that no pages have been removed at a later date.
6. With each shorthand entry, start a fresh page and put the date, what the story relates to, who you’re speaking to and at what time (in court cases, put the court name and case number in this place).
7. I use my notebook to register those people I’ve tried making contact with – even when I’ve not got through to them (therefore there’s no accompanying shorthand note). I do this so I have a complete record of who I’ve contacted, who I’ve tried to contact and when.
8. Make sure your shorthand note is as neat and tight as possible. Many reporters have really scrawling shorthand notes which, although it does the job perfectly well, would look like a disaster zone under close scrutiny.
9. If you have spoken to somebody without your notebook and put the shorthand notes in later – make sure you include details of when the person was spoken and to when the note was entered. Although not ideal, a non-contemporaneous entry is better than nothing and will almost certainly carry more weight than your adversary’s memory nine months on. 10. Do not doctor your shorthand notes or try and re-write them later to fit a story. Modern technology can pick such things up and it will seriously jeopardise your credibility of you get caught out.
10. When you have finished with your notebook, ensure it is properly stored, end-dated and the stories contained within properly indexed.