Beware the unnamed source in news stories, warns Yellowknifer editor Randi Beers

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photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
In this week’s Media Moments, Yellowknifer editor Randi Beers discusses unnamed sources. Sometimes, a publication will choose to protect the identity of a person in a story but must do so responsibly. Three years ago, Rolling Stone Magazine protected the identity of a woman who claimed she was violently sexually assaulted at the University of Virginia, above. The story has since been retracted and the magazine settled a libel lawsuit after it was revealed the woman was not honest.
May 2017

Most news stories are built upon a solid bedrock of sources.

Yellowknifer Editor Randi Beers
Yellowknifer Editor Randi Beers

A spokesperson said this, a politician did that, a document indicates another thing. The goal is to make it easy for the reader to verify anything a publication reports.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule. There are a number of reasons why a publication will choose to protect a source’s identity. Perhaps an employee is blowing the whistle on an employer or a youth is struggling with something sensitive, like mental health. In court cases involving sexual assault victims, there are court-ordered publication bans on naming the victim, even if the victim wants to be named. The only way to get the ban lifted is for the victim to appeal to the judge presiding over the case.One of the most astounding news stories I’ve ever read is built on the experiences of an unnamed source. In December 2015, non-profit media organization ProPublica published a long-form piece called An Unbelievable Story of Rape. It follows the experience of a Washington State woman who called the police after an intruder entered her apartment and sexually assaulted her.

Despite the fact a medical examination found physical evidence an assault had occurred, the police and members of her own family doubted her story because she wasn’t acting like they believed a victim would act. So instead of investigating, the police charged her with falsely reporting a crime.

The story doesn’t end there. As luck would have it, a detective in Colorado happened to be investigating a number of break-and-enter sexual assaults that appeared to be connected. Long story short, she caught the guy and found, among his possessions, a little pink camera that not only belonged to the girl from Washington, but had photographic evidence of his assault on her. He was charged with her sexual assault and the victim was exonerated. She turned around and sued the city, reaching a $150,000 settlement.

While the story protects the victim’s identity, the reporters did speak to the primary police officers in Washington and Colorado connected to the case. They also had access to court files, which makes it simple for them to verify information given by the victim and the victim’s family.

There are a number of things reporters and editors will ask themselves before going forward with a story based on a concealed identity. Why does the person want to talk to the media? Is it possible they have an axe to grind? Why do they want their name protected? Can the publication independently verify every fact given to them?

Above all, the most important question is: Does the importance of the story outweigh the need to name the source?

Sometimes Yellowknifer will get phone calls or e-mails from people who wish to remain anonymous but have concerns about overflowing garbage cans around the city, or the amount of dog poop left on city trails, or an apartment building left in a state of disrepair. Yellowknifer will forego these stories because the nuisance of an overflowing garbage can doesn’t meet the litmus test for protecting a source.

On Friday, Yellowknifer published a story with an unnamed source (“Teen attacked on way to school,” May 12). The story was of a girl who had been beaten by a metal pipe on the way to school four days prior. Seeing as the girl is only 15-years old, it easily met the criteria for not naming her. Yellowknifer was able to verify police are investigating the incident and there is an obvious public safety issue involved.

Sometimes publications will get burned by their instinct to protect sources. Probably the most infamous example of this is A Rape on Campus, published in November 2014 by Rolling Stone Magazine. In it, a woman under the pseudonym Jackie describes a violent sexual assault at a University of Virginia frat party and how she was failed by university afterward.

Because the reporter and the editor handling the story did not critically look at the facts relayed by Jackie out of a desire to protect her, they did not realize she was lying about what happened that night. In the end, the story did not stand up to scrutiny and Rolling Stone retracted it.

Just last month, Rolling Stone settled a lawsuit with the University of Virginia over its reporting on this story. According to The New York Times, the terms of the settlement are confidential.

In cases where media chooses to protect an identity, the reader can and should read with a critical eye. Check to see which sources are named and what they say to back up what the unidentified person says. Judge what the publication puts forward as a reason for protecting an identity. Ask whether the story is indeed important enough to warrant such protection. Assess other evidence cited in the story, such as documents, police reports or court files.

No media outlet is infallible. If facts don’t add up in a story, it’s OK to ask questions. It’s what any good critical reader would do.