Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sources: The good, the bad and the ugly

If an old school reporter had such a thing as a tool box, in it you would find a notebook, a good pen and a Rolodex full of sources. Today, you would also have a computer, a cell phone, a camera and maybe a Flip video camera.

But of all my tools, I always valued my Rolodex files most. Over the years, I developed hundreds of solid sources. It happened through hard work, luck and a lot of patience.

A few years ago, the editors at the Flint Journal asked all members of the staff to throw their source numbers into a common Rolodex so other reporters could access them. They demanded we give up all our inside and cell phone numbers for our sources.

Fat chance. Most of the veteran reporters picked up a phone book and entered phone numbers that anyone could already look up on their own. I never even kept my best source numbers on my desk or computer. They were at home or in my car.

Give up my best tools, not on your life. One time, an intern (the same one that didn't want to bring me and a photographer coffee when we were freezing our tushes off at an armed standoff) asked me to give her an introduction to one of my prime homicide sources.

Letting down my guard just a little, I told her to call and tell the detective I asked her to help the intern. Biggest mistake of my career. What this intern did was violate the trust of the homicide detective and printed personal information on a case that was not yet public information, which got the detective in serious trouble with her chief.

When the detective called me, she was not a happy camper and asked that I step in and get a correction or clarification on how the information was obtained. The editor in charge of the intern refused and incredibly backed up a green-behind-the-ears intern who I knew had disregarded the warnings of the detective and printed information she wasn't supposed to.

All of this was my fault for giving the detective the impression that she could trust the intern. It was the first, and only time, that happened. After that I never vouched for anyone that I really didn't know. Certainly, not an intern. That one incident closed off a great source that had provided me and the newspaper with inside information on serious crimes in the city for years.

One of the things I tried not to do was become drinking buddies with my sources. First, I don't drink. Second, when you are in a bar setting, or informal setting, guards are let down and, in my situation anyway, I didn't feel it was very professional.

Only on rare occasions did I visit with sources in anything other than a professional setting. As I described to others, I am friendly with my sources, but not really friends. Now that I am out of the business, I have reconnected with some of those folks and we are now friends.

The reason for the separation was that I never wanted to be in a position where I knew some negative information about a "friend" and then had to make the uncomfortable decision how to report it.

One of the people I was friendly with was a former prosecutor in Genesee County. I was working on a case involving a drunk driver who had his case mysteriously "lost" on the prosecutor's desk. This after the drunk driver told police he was good friends with the prosecutor and that the case would never see the light of day.

Insiders gave me plenty of ammunition and through my efforts the case was revived, but in my questioning of the prosecutor he became so angry he never would return my calls after that. Especially after the critical story ran on the missing drunken driving case. Another television reporter, who had a close, social relationship with the former prosecutor, wouldn't touch the story with a 10-foot pole. That's why I tried not to get too close.

There's a give and take in the news gathering business that involves delicate negotiations and compromises, even if journalism professors like to pretend it can never happen. Especially in police coverage, there is the balance between what I want to publish and what cops want to release for publication.

My sources knew if I was writing in my notepad, they were on the way to being quoted. If they asked me to put down my pen for a minute to give me some "off-the-record" or background information they could be assured that it would not show up in print until the reason for keeping it off-the-record or background had evaporated.

I never wanted "off-the-record" information that I could never use. I wanted background information that could give context to a story and that, at some future time, could be released to the public. My job, I used to tell police officers, is to tell stories to our readers, not just know them myself.

Often through negotiations, you could get the information you needed on the record simply by explaining how you were going to present it.

One of the toughest "Off-the-record" stories I ever worked on was the 1980s case of a man who threatened to blow up Oakland County public buildings if he didn't received $60 million from the county. Operating under the name "Shiva" the man negotiated with the county through classified ads in the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press.

An Oakland County Sheriff's detective took me into his confidence because he knew that reporters from the Free Press and News were already tracking the case. Before he gave me the information he said I had to promise not to report anything until they had a chance to track down the suspect.

Before I made such a promise, I called my editor, who said if there was no other way to get the information, make the promise. The detective laid out the case, how it was progressing and kept me up-to-date on when the ads would be appearing in the classfied sections.

This went on for six months. My editor at the Oakland Press told me to stay on top of it, and that he didn't want to get beat by the Free Press or News. So every few days, I would check in with the detective to make sure I wasn't missing anything. I even called during a vacation just to make sure.

Finally, one day I called (on a Friday) and the detective said they had pretty much wrapped up the case and were ready to charge a postal worker with the terrorist extortion plot. I appealed to him to let us run the story. "Check with the prosecutor, if he doesn't care, go ahead," the detective said.

So I called the assistant prosecutor, but waited until late on Friday afternoon to hopefully keep my competition from finding out in the event the prosecutor agreed to let me publish the information.

To my surprise, the prosecutor was agreeable to letting us publish the information as long as we didn't identify by name, the suspect until he was arraigned on Monday. Then my heart sank when he said, of course I'll have to call the other reporters at the Free Press and News to let them know also.

My hope was that they wouldn't be in on a late Friday afternoon. So I worked well into the night polishing a piece I had been writing for six months for a big Sunday splash (this was back in the day when you could actually write a Sunday story on a Friday and not plan it three weeks or a month in advance).

A final read through, a final editing and the story was ready for publication on Sunday. Now, I just had to sweat out the weekend to see if the prosecutor had made contact with my counterparts at the Free Press and News. He didn't. I kind of felt bad for them, but not much.

One of the reporters put a line in their follow story the next week that said "the Oakland Press violated an agreement not to publish information on the story...." which was a crock.

That story happened because I had a good source in the sheriff's department who was looking out for me and our paper. Any reporter will tell you that source development is about relationship building and trust.

Burn a source once and you'll not get a chance to burn them again.

News organizations have gotten nervous about unnamed sources, for good reason, but sometimes sources have a lot to lose by exposing themselves and so often good news stories and tips come from inside whistleblowers who would be fired if they were found out.

To all those great sources I interacted with for 30 years. Thank you. Your secrets are forever safe with me.


Pam said...

What a cool job you did! Too bad more people don't have the class, professionalism and ethics you have. It would be a better world if they did.

inky said...

This is exactly why anyone who thinks bloggers, Tweeters and citizen journalists will effectively replace reporters is nuts. It's why police departments don't put new recruits in charge of homicide investigations.

Jim of L-Town said...

Pam, if you keep writing nice things about me, no one will ever believe you are my kid sister.

Love, bro

Anonymous said...

A former high school basketball blogger has been doing the big crime news the past 2 weeks for the Flint Journal...

Larry said...

Thanks for sharing these "war stories." As a former cops reporter myself, I find them heartening. Those delicate negotiations with sources -- gaining their trust -- was one of things I thoroughly enjoyed about the job.