Possibly nothing journalists do is as controversial as the use of anonymous sources. Whenever readers see an anonymous source quoted in print, they tend to become suspicious.
And rightly so. Just imagine your worst enemy was allowed to say whatever he or she wanted to about you — without having to have his name attached to it?
As a result, some journalists refuse to use anonymous sources. Sometimes, however, editors at reputable newspapers, including The Blade, have determined that it is impossible to write a story without the use of an anonymous source.
The Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate, the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon, would have been impossible without anonymous sources.
However, The Blade’s policy is to use unnamed sources as little as possible. Kurt Franck, the executive editor, notes that not a single anonymous source was used in any of the “Coingate” stories that were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006.
Last summer The Blade determined that it was necessary to use an anonymous source in a Page 1 story Aug. 7 about the killing of Cindy Sumner, a 21-year-old North Toledo woman who had gone missing a year earlier. Her badly decomposed body was found in a warehouse on Elm Street six weeks after she vanished.
Elhadi Robbins, a Toledo man who is said to been infatuated with her, has been charged with murder and is awaiting trial.
The Aug. 7 story, by Blade staff writer Bridget Tharp, said an internal police investigation had begun into the conduct of two veteran officers, Donald Nachtrab and Ronald L. Pribe, in connection with an incident three weeks after the young woman vanished. The officers had been sent to the warehouse Aug. 26, after an unnamed emergency responder said he “heard a bunch of people in there” and later heard a woman scream multiple times.
However, the unnamed emergency responder said the officers stopped and listened but never got out of the car.
Nearly six months later, on Jan. 28, The Blade ran a story saying the investigation, completed in September, had cleared the officers and concluded their response was “more than adequate.”
They had in fact gotten out of the car, heard nothing, and saw no signs of entry into the building. Both officers were veterans of more than two decades on the force, and both had received the professional service award.
That wasn’t enough to satisfy Officer Nachtrab, who politely wrote me that he had multiple concerns about the accuracy and fairness involved in the reporting of this story. His main concern was the claim in the original story that the anonymous source had called 911.
The tape of that call, he argues, shows only one person calling the number, and that person doesn’t claim to have heard anything himself. Officer Nachtrab doesn’t believe there was a second call.
He also was bitter that the investigation clearing him and his partner was completed in September, but nothing about it appeared in The Blade until the end of January.
So what really happened here?
Your ombudsman looked closely into this matter, with the help of The Blade’s editors and Ms. Tharp, who left the newspaper to take a non-newspaper job toward the end of last year.
After reviewing lots of material, I concluded that The Blade’s reporting was accurate, but the writing was occasionally sloppy and, in one case, gave an inaccurate impression.
There was, indeed, a second caller, a person whose anonymity the reporter agreed to protect so that person could keep his or her job.
Your ombudsman has no doubt of this, after interviewing Ms. Tharp and the editors. I also think that keeping this source anonymous was necessary, for reasons related to the person’s employment.
But I am not happy with the fact that The Blade was not fully honest in how it reported what this person said. Kim Bates, the city editor, told me, “We did take missteps in our writing” and editing of the Aug. 7, 2010 story. “For instance, we said the employee reported he ‘heard a bunch of people in there and heard somebody screaming …’
“This sentence was misleading because the employee didn’t hear this directly but was conveying what he had heard from a third party. We also stated that our anonymous source was the 911 caller, when in fact he was not. While he reported the situation, his call was not the one retrieved by Toledo police” on the 911 line.
Journalists shouldn’t pull their punches, but we have to make sure that everything we report and write is perfectly true.
The Blade ought to have found a way to convey this information without being untruthful — and the editors admitted that.
Your ombudsman also feels that Officer Nachtrab is justified in being bitter that it took so long for the results of the investigation clearing him to appear in The Blade.
However, this is a case where a number of parties are to blame. True, the newspaper should have been more aggressive in trying to pursue the results of the investigation.
The story saying the police officers were being investigated was the major news story that day, and The Blade should have done a better job pressing the police for the results of the investigation.
Ms. Tharp says she did so up to the time she left the paper in December.
However, Chief Mike Navarre could have been more proactive in getting the word out clearing his officers as well. “To his credit, he admits the department should have done more to bring the results of the investigation to the forefront,” Officer Nachtrab told me.
Fortunately, the officer was pleased with the Jan. 28 story indicating that he and his partner had been cleared.
Mistakes were made, but in the end, the city editor may have put all this in perspective. “We have learned a great deal from this situation and plan to carefully review any such use of anonymous sources in the future,” Ms. Bates said.
This column was originally published in the Toledo Blade on Feb. 13, 2011.