JONESIE: In defence of reporting from unnamed sources | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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JONESIE: In defence of reporting from unnamed sources

 


OPINION


It’s always a risk as a journalist using information provided by unnamed sources. It’s asking readers to trust you and your work, and that’s a big ask in 2021.

Most of what you read in the news should cite actual sources, by name so people can decide if they trust those sources. People often confuse that, thinking reporters are saying these sometimes controversial things. Our jobs as reporters and editors is to make it clear who said them.

We’re just the muckrakers who ask them to share that information to as many people as we possibly can.

All that changes with unnamed sources.

It hasn’t always gone well for me. Many years ago, a source in Kelowna accidentally disclosed to me that a company was interested in buying the old Western Star Trucks factory to build and repair Beaver airplanes.

That put us both in a bind. I couldn’t exactly ignore the information, it was big news. But I also couldn’t burn my source. If the deal fell through because I reported it irresponsibly, he’d have lost his job, perhaps even been sued, and this project would surely not bring hundreds of jobs to Kelowna.

He had been a regular and trusted source of information for years.

It could have quickly become an issue between us but instead we agreed to a plan. I wouldn’t report on the information until he disclosed his error where he needed to and we’d see what shook out. He kept me apprised but he knew at some point, I had to publish.

It took a couple of weeks but I reported the scoop, later followed up several times and interviewed the man trying to spearhead the operation. No one got in trouble and my source and I earned a lot of trust with each other. I was uncomfortable sitting on information I obtained in the public interest and would have made a much different choice if the story involved any public danger, but given the subject matter, I was OK with it.

Unfortunately, the deal never went through. I think I reported it accurately — that they were trying to do this, not that it was going to happen — but still, it didn’t happen and I worried readers might judge me for it.

That was an unusual circumstance. Most of the time, these unnamed sources really want information to get out. They see something going on that’s wrong, but blowing the whistle would come with serious ramifications, like losing their jobs.

Without unnamed sources, a lot of stories wouldn’t be reported. And a lot of good wouldn’t get done.

It was unnamed sources who helped us uncover the $8 million debt the Westbank First Nation inherited after the proposed Lake Okanagan Wellness Centre collapsed. The stories didn’t help recover any money, but band members knew exactly what happened and they turfed nearly every councillor in the next election.

Many years ago, another trusted source took me aside and explained to me the terrible state of firefighting in some of the outlying areas. I had no idea until he explained it to me, which is often the case. He agreed to give me information on background, meaning I could have and use the information as I felt necessary, just couldn’t say where I got it from. That’s different from ‘off the record’ which to most journalists means: You can’t report this at all.

When I get sources like this, it’s important to have a discussion about what these different terms mean because it’s not always the same. Off the record usually means a big waste of time experienced reporters try to avoid so it’s normally reserved for trusted and reliable people.

In another situation no one actually read about because I didn’t report it, I was approached by a police officer and a paramedic about the same case: The death of a child. They were convinced what they saw was a homicide, despite the fact the Crown declined to charge the suspect.

I had had no prior dealings with either of these sources or I might have made a different decision about publishing that information, though I’m glad I didn’t.

A coroner’s inquest later showed why. The girl died of a terrible accident but it was easily understandable why the cop and paramedic thought they were right.

That’s another conversation I have with my sources: Just because you tell me things doesn’t mean I’m going to write it. If I don’t know you, I have to verify first. Also standard discussion: If sources burn me, lie to me or try to manipulate me, all deals are off.

Which brings me, finally, to my column two weeks ago about Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick’s political shenanigans regarding his seat and what he will get for leaving it.

READ MORE: JONESIE: Kelowna Mayor Norm Letnick and MLA Colin Basran? That's the plan for 2022

Letnick is now on record denying entirely that there’s a plan to put Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran in his seat to clear the road for Letnick’s run for mayor.

I don’t know that it’s going to happen, no one does. My story might have even popped that bubble.

But I have three independent unnamed sources verifying the plan and soft confirmation from others. They're pissed about this trampling of democracy and they opted to do something about it.

The information is solid.

I also know how Letnick’s denials are sitting with all the people who know this to be true, his own people. They're shocked at his temerity.

I don’t know what’s going to actually happen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if neither Letnick nor Basran is Mayor next November.

Stay tuned.

And if you ever want to drop me a line, you can reach me at 250-718-2724 or email mjones@infonews.ca. Private emails provided upon request.

— Marshall Jones is the Managing Editor of iNFOnews.ca


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