You be the Editor: Would you run this letter?

February 14, 2007 11:00 pm

Last month, I offered readers a challenge: You be the editor. Each Thursday, this column would present an ethical or policy decision about news coverage that an editor might have to make. Readers are invited to share how they would handle the dilemma.

The latest case garnered several great responses from readers (some anonymously!). Here's the dilemma the column presented:

You receive an unsigned letter to the editor that details serious fraud in the local city budget. The newspaper has a policy of not printing anonymous letters, but the writer of this one says she will be fired from her job with the city if her name is published.

As the local newspaper's editor, do you:

A) Print the letter unsigned because the content is so precise and important

B) Not print the letter but pursue the issues outlinedin the letter as a news story

C) Assume the content is a hoax and throw the letter in the trash

The dilemma is not unlike a situation The Daily Triplicate regularly faces. About once a week we receive an anonymous email or letter (usually carrying a Medford or Eureka postmark) alleging that local officials have engaged in some unethical or illegal activity. On occasion, the letter writer gives his or her name, but always with the condition that it only can be printed anonymously.

So, if you were editor and received such a letter what would you do?

Aaron Funk, of Klamath, went with A: "If you have vetted the information in the letter and are sufficiently confident in its correctness to take on co-responsibility for its publication, you should publish the letter."

Nancy Cavanaugh, of Klam-ath, disagreed, and went with B: "The content may seem precise and important, but printing un-founded information can be very harmful, especially to the innocent. There will always be the dark cloud. There are too many angry, bitter and spiteful people. Get some facts first – that's what reporters do. Don't toss it be-cause there may be something there – a good story. Investigate first."

Carol Layton, of Crescent City, also chose B. "Anonymous letters are tricky. Had the letter been signed with the request that you withhold the name from publication, it would have been slightly less risky, but with no name, the allegations could be simply a way that a disgruntled employee is ‘getting back' at the system. There is no way to follow up what is going on – for example, what is the writer's work history? Was she recently disciplined or demoted? In fact there is no way of confirming that the writer even had access to the city budget or, for that matter, even works for the city, other than the details revealed in the letter. Those details, in the hands of a good reporter, could make for a very good story, while in the hands of an irate employee could make for scandal!"

Johnnie Fugate, of Crescent City, took a unique approach that is close to B: "I would turn the letter over to the proper authorities for investigation."

No one – not even those writing anonymously – selected C.

Credibility

First, thanks to Aaron, Nancy, Carol and Johnnie for responding. It's clear each of them put some thought into their answers.

So how would I respond as editor?

First, I never print a letter anonymously. Why? The worthiness of any statement in part depends upon who said it. Some people lack the expertise to provide a worthy analysis. Others, as Nancy and Carol wisely pointed out, have dubious motivations.

Of course, even those trying to start a scandal may be telling the truth. Knowing their motivation, however, can tell us a lot about whether we're hearing the whole story. Readers looking at a letter deserve to know who is making the statement so they can judge its veracity.

A newspaper's most valuable asset is its credibility. This credibility is largely based on our ability to be objective by giving readers pertinent facts and the viewpoints of various sides. This allows readers to make up their own minds. Even if an item is listed as "opinion," naming who states a viewpoint provides valuable information to readers to help them draw a conclusion on their own.

Answer A – print the letter unsigned because the content is so precise and important – undermines our credibility.

It also could potentially create legal problems, particularly for libel. Aaron smartly hedges his bet against libel by ensuring the letter is vetted.

Johnnie suggests turning the letter over to the proper authorities. While his intentions are good, this also could harm our objectivity. By actively cooperating in a criminal investigation, we essentially are taking sides on the matter and lose our objectivity.

Journalists feel so strongly about not being tools of law enforcement, that we often will go to jail for it. Indeed, currently in California freelance journalist Josh Wolf has been in federal custody for 177 days because he refuses to testify before a grand jury and won't turn over his source material for video he shot of a San Francisco protest. It's a controversial stand that perhaps has hurt journalists in some eyes as much as it has helped maintain their high regard in others'.

I'd treat the letter merely as a news tip. It's worth a couple of phone calls to see if it can be corroborated and lead to a deeper investigation.

But frankly I don't put much faith in anonymous letters. At least three of every four anonymous tips I've receive deserved to be tossed into the garbage. Of the ones that had some legitimacy, many of the facts were wrong or it was a workers' complaint heading toward some of kind of civil suit.

And sometimes, though the letter writer honestly believes that officials acted improperly, no laws or mainstream ethical standards have been broken.

Pursuing claims

But let us suppose, though, that we did receive an anonymous letter that was 100 percent factual in its statements and that didn't leave out any key points. To expose the wrongdoing, the newspaper almost certainly will need to know who the letter writer is. Usually the tip provided is too vague to pursue.

And I'd also like to ask the whistleblower why they're not doing their civic duty and reporting this wrongdoing to the proper authorities.

So my answer, like Carol's and Nancy's is B, but with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Reach Rob Bignell, The Daily Triplicate's editor, at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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The Next Dilemma

Your newspaper has a tradition of writing news articles about any well-known community leader who dies. Typically, these articles mention cause of death. A 45-year old man who has been a prominent high school teacher dies but relatives refuse to discuss the cause of death. Then your reporter is able to confirm the cause of death was an AIDs-related illness.

As the local newspaper's editor, do you:

A) Go against the wishes of the family and print that AIDS was the cause of death

B) List the cause as complications of pneumonia, without reference to AIDS

Let's hear your answers. Again, email them to This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it Write "You be the Editor" in the subject line. Please note that time limitations prevent me from taking phone calls to discuss the case study. I'll print some of your thoughts next Thursday in this space.

Tell how you'd solve the next dilemma.