From the Newsroom: Why and how we report on legal documents


Ava Mandoli/The Daily Northwestern

Reporters at The Daily frequently refer to legal documents in our reporting. This is how and why we report on them.

Avani Kalra, Audience Engagement Editor

Content warning: This story contains mentions of sexual misconduct.

In this series, Daily staff members hope to provide more transparency about how we operate. If you would like to submit a question to be answered here, please send an email to Editor-in-chief Jacob Fulton at [email protected].

As reporters and editors at The Daily, we are tasked with breaking down legal documents and reports. Whether it’s a City Council budget, an annual campus safety report or a Northwestern administered survey, we aim to read, understand and ultimately explain the contents of lengthy and often complex documents. 

Sometimes, we read and explain investigative reports, like the city’s recent investigation into sexual misconduct on Evanston’s lakefront. Reporting on investigative findings requires thought and intention when deciding what we include in our coverage and the language we use to explain it. 

Our job as reporters is to accurately convey the findings of these reports to our readership while ensuring we are protected from legal repercussions as a publication.

Covering legal reports

There are a number of scenarios in which reporters refer to legal documents. Reading and understanding city documents is imperative to covering City Council. We ensure reporters are equipped with training and instructions to understand and convey necessary material from these documents. 

We also published a comprehensive guide to City Council meetings to help guide our reporters’ understanding. 

When we cover City Council meetings, reporters usually refer to the agenda to follow the meeting in real time. Councilmembers are typically given a packet of information –– findings from city staff, budget reports, etc. –– that inform discourse in committee. Our reporters often use those documents in the research phases of their updates and summaries. 

Court documents, depositions and regulatory reports don’t just inform our weekly updates on City Council, but our larger reporting pieces, as well. In many of our “In Foci,” in-depth investigative articles that take a deep dive into an important issue, reporters request legal documents from the city or the university. 

In her recent In Focus, In Focus Editor Olivia Alexander utilized the Freedom of Information Act to request arrest and suspension data related to policing for District 219 high schools. 

Summarizing the contents of a legal report

We often use an “explainer” style piece when writing about legal documents. That means we convey the critical components of the investigation, divided by section. That usually includes the factual issue, the who, what, where, why, when and how, before anything else. 

Reports often also include a conclusion, analysis, evidence and a relevant policy section. The easiest way for us as reporters to break these sections into digestible content is to begin with an investigation’s executive summary, a brief description of a complaint that includes the investigative mandate and ultimate conclusion. 

Essentially, the executive summary condenses and breaks down the important components of a larger piece. Still, it’s important that we read the rest of the document so our reporting reflects the scope of the investigation and other analysis to readers.

For example, there is often testimony from interviewees or detail into investigation processes that are left out of traditional executive summaries. If the information is important to an overall understanding of the issue, or sheds light on something underreported or underrepresented, it is our job to amplify it. 

Language use

Journalists often use words like “claimed” or “alleged” in our reporting. While that terminology might feel vague or removed, it is a conscious choice we make to avoid a libel lawsuit. The words we used are never informed by a judgment call, but rather serve to reflect what we can legally confirm. 

Libel law allows a plaintiff to sue for defamation to a person’s business or reputation because of an untrue statement. Truth is an absolute defense to libel, so we are careful to make 100% sure we are accurate in our statements. 

Defending The Daily from a libel suit often involves using terms defined in a certain set of allegations. For example, a story published last week about a law firm’s investigation into 2020 lakefront misconduct allegations used the term “nonconsensual sex,” as opposed to rape.

Though we had conversations in the newsroom about the specific use of this term during the editing process, the term was what Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter used to describe these transgressions in their lakefront report. It was imperative to use their term in order to both accurately represent their findings and ensure consistency in defining misconduct across the investigation and our reporting. 

Though it may not always reflect the complexities of the issues at the center of and the people referenced in our reporting, we must use legal language to accurately and truthfully convey what we are covering.


Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @avanidkalra


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