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Arment Dietrich

Anonymous Sources Exploit Media

By: Arment Dietrich | February 18, 2008 | 
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Blog written by Sydney Ayers, APR

An interesting thing happened last week in Denver.  A state legislator resigned following allegations by a lobbyist that he had made unwanted sexual advances at a party in advance of the session.  Now, that in and of itself is nothing new.  Unfortunately, leaders of all ilks are notorious for engaging in all manner of sexual misconduct.  What was interesting was how this was handled by Denver’s two major daily newspapers.

The story begins the week before the legislator resigned when a female lobbyist reached out to a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News.  She wanted to talk about something that had happened with a lawmaker.  The catch?  The lobbyist didn’t want to be identified.

The reporter wasn’t comfortable with that.  While the lobbyist had told her story to the Speaker of the House, she hadn’t filed a criminal complaint and there were no witnesses to the act.  Further, even though other women were said to have had similar experiences with this legislator, the News could not locate them nor would they willingly step forward.  And a prosecutor hadn’t evaluated the case to determine if there was cause to file charges.

According to a column by Rocky Mountain News Publisher John Temple, the paper’s policy on anonymous sources is clear.  In short, the paper discourages the use of anonymous sources as their use can ultimately threaten the credibility of the newspaper.

Shortly after the News made the decision to pass on the story until the lobbyist agreed to be named or other women came forward, an account of it appeared on a conservative blog known for its attacks on Democrats.  It then appeared on the Denver Post Web site and in the print version of the Post the next day.  Neither of the Web sites nor the Post named the victim.

Still the News remained firm.  No corroboration, no story.

Temple points out that this is a cautionary tale regarding the Internet era.  More “news organizations” mean more stories and more pressure to publish.  Sometimes these stories will be true.  Sometimes they won’t.  The problem is you aren’t going to know the difference and in the meantime, someone’s reputation, career, or life could very well be ruined.

Temple defends the News’ decision by noting, “…anonymous people with axes to grind will exploit the media for their own agendas – destroying reputations along the way.”  How true!

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