Tonawanda News

April 10, 2013

DUVALL: Reporters rely on their good names

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The Tonawanda News

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.

In short, we have to be sure what the sources are saying is correct. (That’s where Winter shined, having found two different people to confirm the same information, a huge step toward establishing its validity.)

Of course, the lawyers representing Mr. Holmes don’t have the same goal as an investigative reporter. 

Holmes’ legal team was apoplectic at the leak, which violated a judicial gag order prohibiting all involved in the case — including police and prosecutors — from speaking to the media.

There’s no doubt the journal leak is a detriment to Holmes’ defense. 

Now, bent on finding out who the sources in Winter’s story were, Holmes’ lawyers have issued a subpoena compelling her testimony. She, like any reporter would do in this unenviable situation, has lived up to her pledge to her sources not to reveal their identity. If she continues to refuse to do so while under oath she could be held in contempt and sent to jail.

Thankfully it hasn’t come to that just yet — but it could.

The judge overseeing the case ruled in court Tuesday Winter doesn’t have to testify, thanks largely to a technicality. Because the diary is presently covered by Holmes’ doctor-patient privilege it won’t likely be entered into evidence. That is, unless Holmes’ defense team decides to mount an insanity defense, which would open up questions about his prior treatment — and putting the journal back in play as potential evidence.

There are many instances where being a reporter is an uncomfortable profession. But being forced to out sources under penalty of jail has a chilling effect on sources speaking to reporters in general. 

It’s difficult enough to get people to give you information they don’t want made public without their questioning your credibility. When the government potentially compromises that trust beyond your control, it’s all the more infuriating.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com.