Tonawanda News

Columns

April 10, 2013

DUVALL: Reporters rely on their good names

Tonawanda News — When someone from this newspaper meets a member of the public in the course of reporting a story the first thing that person is likely to here is, “Hello, I’m (Eric DuVall) with the Tonawanda News.”

That might seem obvious but there’s a reason beyond social norms or general congeniality. As journalists we know one thing: Don’t bury the lede. 

No matter what happens in the rest of the conversation, as a journalist you’ve used your two most important tools immediately: Your name and thus your personal credibility and your newspaper with its institutional credibility. 

Without those two things we’re no different than your nosy neighbor.

I bring this up because there have been disturbing instances recently of journalists being forced to choose between sacrificing their personal credibility and that of their publication’s — or face stiff punishment including jail time.

Take the case of Fox News reporter Jana Winter, who was dispatched to Aurora, Colo., to cover the horrific movie theater shooting there last summer. 

Winter, a veteran investigative reporter, dug up a tremendous scoop. She found two independent law enforcement officials who were willing to confirm the suspect, James Holmes, had not only been in treatment for worsening mental illness, he’d been instructed by his psychiatrist to keep a journal of his thoughts as part of his treatment. That journal, as it turns out, was filled with angry rants, threats of violence foreshadowing his rampage and disturbing drawings of stick figures shooting other stick figures.

It was some terrific reporting that offered the first real glimpse into what appears a very disturbed mind.

It came with one catch: The law enforcement officials were speaking on the condition of anonymity. 

When a reporter offers someone the benefit of speaking without using their name it is always a dicey situation. We give away our insurance policy on our own credibility — the ability to attribute the information we’re providing to someone else.

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