Have I got a deal for you!

The line between cooperation and collusion

An exclusive story can be yours. The catch is authorities want you to share your information from a key suspect.

By Lynn Howard

Lynn Howard is a free-lance writer. She was senior features reporter for the Pensacola News Journal at the time of the incident on which this article is based.

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

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 7 (October 1989), p. 7.

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.

 

It was a tantalizing proposition. The detective said he could put me on the inside track of one of the biggest stories of the year. All he wanted was a look at my notes from an unpublished interview with one of his primary suspects.

Maybe we could work a deal, he said.

The detective was investigating an alleged baby-selling operation based in Northwest Florida that might involve leading attorneys, pastors and anti-abortionists. The suspect I had interviewed, Ms. C., was known for regularly parading in front of local women’s clinics, shouting anti-abortion epithets at all who entered.

There was a good chance my notes from the interview with Ms. C. could help the investigation, the detective said. In exchange, he would give me an exclusive entree to the investigation and take me along on any arrests that might be made.

My inclination was to leap at the proposition. I wanted that exclusive and I wanted to help stop any baby-selling that might be taking place. But I was uncomfortable.

Where does cooperation end and collusion begin? 

The Pensacola News Journal had no written policy on reporters’ notes and I had never been confronted with such a suggestion.

Let me think about it, I said.

I was working on another story when I got wind of the baby-selling allegations. The piece focused on a local church’s solicitation of couples interested in “uncomplicated” adoptions. The drive infuriated child services officials who had three-year waiting lists of qualified adoptive families.

The solicitation, I discovered, was a ruse to fatten the mailing lists and coffers of an anti-abortion group.

As I investigated the story, a child services worker mentioned Ms. C. “Why don’t you ask the police what they know about her and illegal adoption,” asked the worker. “She has made offers to a few people we had in here, and some were so tired of waiting, they turned to her.”

In our subsequent interview, Ms. C. admitted she approached people interested in adopting about the babies of unwed mothers she had “rescued” from abortion. “But I always tell them to go through an attorney,” she said. “If they need one, I know a couple of lawyers who can help them.”

Ms. C. lived in a comfortable home which she opened to pregnant women who needed a place to stay. Although she had no visible means of support, she promised her “girls” three square meals a day, a roof over their heads and prenatal medical care. Further, she would help “facilitate” the adoption of the baby, she said.

Caring attorneys and prospective adoptive parents helped Ms. C. with her living expenses, she said. Sometimes the families of the unwed mothers would help with food or money “contributions.”

The details she revealed to me could assist the police investigation, I believed. If an arrest followed, the story would be powerful. Without my information, the detective seemed to have a weak case at best.

My supervisor, then-Features Editor Virginia MacDonald, shared my enthusiasm for the exclusive as well as my reservations about sharing my notes.

We talked to our managing editor, Fred Palmer (now deceased), who, after considerable thought, said he thought reporters should not help make the news, but should stick to breaking the news. The information I had could be gathered by detectives if they did their job and I could still get the story if I did my job, he reasoned.

I was torn. I hated the decision, but I understood it. I had serious reservations about making deals for news. But, if that woman was involved in selling babies, I wanted her to face a jury. And, I wanted that story.

Palmer checked with then-Executive Editor Kent Cockson, and we all agreed no notes would be parlayed. I was expected to use my sources and resources to get the story.

The baby-selling story never broke. No arrests were made. No corroborating sources would go on the record – no investigators, no child services workers, no adoptive parents, no unwed mothers. I could not even get official confirmation that the investigation existed.

I will never know if my notes would have led to the arrest of Ms. C. She still prowls the clinic parking lots, bellowing through her bullhorn.

But the dilemma had an effect on the newsroom. Days later, a written policy was posted in the News Journal that makes all notes used for a story the property of the newspaper. Further, reporters and editors are forbidden to share notes under any circumstances, nor show copies of stories in advance of their printing.

The policy should make reporters’ jobs a little easier. I know it would have mine.