The Times West Virginian

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December 10, 2012

Sources’ names sometimes withheld for safety, privacy

FAIRMONT — I’ve had to tell sources in the past, “It doesn’t mean anything unless you put your name to it.”

You see, in our society sometimes a handshake can seal a deal. But that handshake doesn’t always stand up in court. Most deals require two attorneys, two participants, a ream of paper, a whole lot of ink and a notary public.

And telling a journalist something “off the record” is just a starting point. I’ve had leads from sources that were “off the record” and it set me off on a journey to track down documents and evidence to back up what was told to me. Sometimes it’s like chasing the rabbit down the hole, though. If I can’t find anything to prove the claim, it comes down to someone’s word ... and their name.

Let me give you a completely made-up scenario. Let’s say a city official calls me and says that the entire block of Adams Street is undermined and the structural integrity of the courthouse and the complex there is in question. Again, this is a completely made-up situation to demonstrate a point.

I can’t print a story that just says “a source told the Times West Virginian ...” and go on to say how the entire block of Adams Street is going to cave in at any moment.

What I would do with that information would be to start digging. I may start flipping through public records, issue Freedom of Information requests for documentation, read over minutes of meetings, and start making calls to everyone with any authority from the top floor all the way down to the guy who mops the courtroom after hours.

If I come up with nothing, it’s just the word of the official who gave me the tip. And at that point, “It doesn’t mean anything unless you put your name to it.”

 

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