“But I thought you were . . . “

When a source doesn’t know you are a reporter

A source mistakes a reporter for someone else and provides confidential information. Should the information be used?

By Robert Miraldi

Robert Miraldi is an associate professor of journalism at SUNY-New Paltz. He worked at the Staten Island Advance from 1974-1980.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 2 (May 1990), p. 2.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

Klein’s Forest Manor was a 200-bed single-room occupancy hotel in the borough of Staten Island, one of many large boarding houses that had developed in New York City to house the thousands of patients who had been released from state psychiatric centers.

As a reporter with the Staten Island Advance (daily circulation 80,000), I was writing often about Forest Manor whose problems were duplicated in hundreds of single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels throughout the city.

My ethical dilemma arose after one of Forest Manor’s residents, a 25-year-old Brooklyn man, committed suicide by jumping off the building’s roof.

The next day, following up on the story, I arranged an interview at the facility. When I arrived, the manager brought me to a room to meet a case worker from a local psychiatric center where the victim had been treated.

The social worker told a fascinating and insightful story. The victim, a product of a broken home, had experienced psychiatric problems early in his teens and had been in and out of hospitals. When both his parents, who were quite elderly, moved to Florida, he was referred to Forest Manor. The day before his death, the victim’s father visited and they quarreled. The next day at a clinic, he stuck himself in the stomach with a blunt object.

The victim told a psychiatrist he was confused, but the psychiatrist concluded and noted on his records, “Patient is not suicidal.” The social worker, to my surprise, handed me the case file and pointed to the psychiatrist’s handwritten note that the patient was not suicidal. The same day the  psychiatrist drew this conclusion, the young man killed himself.

Perplexed, I asked the social worker how the psychiatrist could have reached his conclusion. “The victim was taking considerable medication,” she replied, “and this should have stabilized him.” She told me the exact dosage.

It was only then that I became suspicious. Reporters are rarely — except in court cases or with an obvious leak of information — allowed to see medical and psychiatric records. “Why are you telling me all this?” I asked.

You are a social worker, she said, compiling information for a hospital review, aren’t you?

I turned to the manager of Forest Manor who admitted with a shrug that he had told her I was someone else. He wanted to make my job easier, he explained. He had other motives, however. If the public knew about the problems of Forest Manor’s residents, maybe they would support the operators’ efforts to allow nurses — at the state’s expense — to work in the facility.

My source was understandably upset. She asked that I not use any of the information I had just gotten. If I did, she said, she might be fired. At the least, it was a serious breach of confidentiality and professional ethics. Had she known I was a reporter, she said she wouldn’t have consented to an interview but would have referred me to a public relations officer who most likely would have given me no information.

I, too, was angry because I had conducted a good-faith interview, thinking we were legitimately on the record. I had not misidentified myself, conducting the interview with my “reporter’s notebook” in full view. And the information I had received was compelling.

Normally, ethical considerations prevent a reporter from taking information under false pretenses. Moreover, reporters who have not identified themselves might get information that is unreliable. Sources speak differently on the record than they might, say, to a friend with whom they are having a drink.

How then did I resolve the dilemma?

I had written about boarding houses for four years. These poorly-supervised facilities were inappropriately located in residential neighborhoods and they were just becoming the focus of serious public policy discussions as to how — and even whether — they should be regulated.

My story, I was convinced, was important. It would contribute to a larger debate about this new industry. The bottom line for me was that the public’s need for information outweighed my source’s desire for protection from identification. Moreover, the two needs were not mutually exclusive.

I did not consult with any editor since I felt this was a reporter-source decision and since the Advance’s editors were generally uninvolved in the routine of daily news gathering. (The overworked city editor was supervising 15 reporters.)

I proposed a compromise. I would agree not to attribute this information to my source and I would not use any references that might identify her.

However, I would attribute the psychiatrist’s diagnosis to a note on the victim’s case file and I would decide what information to use from our interview. She agreed, and the story appeared the next day on page one, sad testimony to a failed family and an inept mental health system.

In hindsight, I should have consulted with an editor to get a second opinion on the matter. I might also have tried to get the information confirmed from other sources. There was no doubt about its accuracy, but if I could have gotten it from other sources I would not have jeopardized my original source’s job status. (She never was suspected as the source of the story, however.)

Maintaining the trust of sources is important, but in a situation where a reporter has not acted dishonestly in obtaining information, I’m convinced that the obligation is less to the source than to the public.

 

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