As a reporter, you never know where one single story will take you.
I wrote that story several years ago. It was actually a follow-up story that was originally broken by a Charleston newspaper about a local elected official. I re-presented the information, spoke to the official and published the story.
I got a phone call from a woman the next day — a woman who had once worked for the same official but had been fired. She told me who she was and that she had no idea what she planned to do. But she felt like she had been fired for all the wrong reasons and that it was unfair. She said she would tell me her story, but I couldn’t print it.
I listened. Sometimes that’s what people need.
And true to my word, I didn’t print it.
Over the weeks, our relationship grew. She would call me and tell me to look for information here or there. And I looked. That’s when it became clear that the things this former employee was telling me were valid. She decided to contact an attorney. And then that attorney filed a whistleblower’s lawsuit, which is a claim that a person was fired for pointing out wrongdoings and unethical practices of their employers.
At that point, her name became a matter of public record. But in the weeks leading up to the filing of the suit, I never used her name in print or while searching for other avenues to get the same information she was telling me on the record. I earned her trust because of that. She earned mine by giving me information that when double-checked or triple-checked through other sources was spot-on.
Throughout the legal process, I still talked to the woman from time to time. But she was never used as a “source” for any of the many stories I wrote on the issue, though she had given me more information than any other official source had.
This comes to mind because we’ve gotten a few truly anonymous letters with very serious allegations about public officials in recent weeks. These letters aren’t signed. These letters give us no direction on how to find any information to corroborate the accusations made within them.
It’s not as if we are ignoring the tips. We just have no avenue to take to find public records or sources to bring these issues to light, if they are factual and valid.
We’re not in the business of printing rumors. That only serves to damage reputations — of public officials and of this newspaper itself, which will mark its 150th anniversary in this county in the next couple of years. We would never print a story about how some elected official may or may not have an alcohol problem, for example. But if that official were arrested for public intoxication or driving while under the influence, the foundation can be laid for a story.
And if you have any more concerns about contacting the newspaper with a news tip while keeping your name out of it, you must understand that a shield law was passed last legislative session and signed into law effective June 10, 2011.
The law provides journalists with almost absolute privilege to refuse to disclose the identity of confidential sources, and documents or other information that could identify confidential sources, in civil, criminal, administrative and grand jury proceedings. A court may compel disclosure of such information only if “necessary to prevent imminent death, serious bodily injury or unjust incarceration.”
That’s a very powerful protection for journalists. But you know what they say comes with great power — great responsibility. We use a great deal of discretion when it comes to printing the word “anonymous” in a news story. Without being able to determine if information is accurate and reliable, we don’t print it. And we won’t print it.
As I’ve said many, many times to reporters over the years, there’s always a trail. It may not be something you think of off the top of your head, but there’s always a trail. And you know what? That trail sometimes comes to a dead end. But instead of bemoaning the time I’ve wasted following the trail, I remind myself that it’s made me a better investigator. And it reminds me how powerful information is and how if used in the wrong way, you’ll lose the one thing you can never get back — credibility.
My Press Pass is a twice monthly column written by Managing Editor Misty Poe to explain the news gathering process and editorial decisions made at the Times West Virginian. If there are any specific questions you’d like to see addressed, you may contact her at email@example.com.