When a story just isn’t worth it

Holding information to protect a good source

Can the benefit to the community — and to the reporter — of a source keeping his job, justify withholding a story? This journalist thinks it can.

By Michael Fabey

Michael Fabey, now a reporter for The Philadelphia Business Journal, was a reporter for the North Jersey Herald & News in Passaic, NJ.

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

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 3 (March 1991), p. 4.

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.

 

I knew something didn’t figure right in the city budget. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize the extent until an hour before deadline. No problem I thought, I’ll just call my trusty source, Fred Ebeneau, the city finance director. I dialed his phone number, but heard a recording — “The number you have called . . .” The mechanical voice gave the new number.

I started dialing, but stopped. Wait a minute, I thought. That new prefix is nowhere near Paterson. I called information and found out it was in Toms River, at least an hour away.

By law, all department heads and most other employees, had to live within city limits. My “friend” Fred could be immediately fired.

Here was the number three official in the city administration flouting the residency laws. The residency requirement had been a topic of hot debate in City Hall because a deputy fire chief was claiming he was being blackballed from the department’s top job because of his outside-the-city address. Mayor Frank Graves had said publicly that he believed in the residency statute above almost anything else for determining who could work what jobs for the city.

There was also the competition factor to consider. I worked for the North Jersey Herald & News and would do almost anything to beat my rival, the much bigger Record in Hackensack.

To be honest, I would not hesitate reporting on almost any other official. But Fred was more than just a source, he was just about the only person inside the Graves cabinet that I could trust to tell the truth. Any time I doubted the administration’s calculations on the budget, I called Fred who would set me straight. Fred had also steered me to some major front-page stories. As a source, he was invaluable.

I did nothing that night. I did not even mention it to my editors because they would have wanted me to run with it right away. I knew holding the story could affect my credibility as a reporter. After all, I was cutting someone a break just because he had helped me.

But it takes time to develop a source like this, especially in a tight-lipped and well-controlled administration like the one in Paterson. After beating your head against stone walls all day, it was nice to find an open door. I liked Fred. At least this one night, I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The next day, I confronted Fred. He told me he lived in Toms River because it had a fine special education program and he had a son with a learning disability. Fred did not try to sway me from writing any story.

Whatever Fred’s reason, he was still breaking the law. I had heard that other members of the Graves cabinet were not living in the city, but here I had proof.

I weighed the facts. On one side, I had a story and a good one. A high-ranking city official, responsible for helping set tax rates, did not live in the city, contrary to the law. On the face of it, it was my job as a reporter to tell that story.

But on the other side, Fred was a good source with whom I had developed a relationship over a year’s time. Not only did he make my job easier, he gave me some of the best stories I had written while covering the city. If anyone argued that I had a personal stake involved, I could just point out the warts within the government that Fred had helped me expose.

In the end, that was the final argument that tipped the scale toward not writing the story. I honestly felt that my readers would be best served by having Fred in his job.

The story may have remained buried, except for Andy Torricicollo, a city resident who made it his business to find and right all wrongs in the Paterson government. Andy also had no reservations about calling city employees at home. One night he tried Fred’s number. He heard the same recording. He learned where Fred lived.

Andy approached me before the next council meeting, about a week later. “Do you know where Fred lives?” he asked me. I played dumb and he told me. Then he told me he was going to bring this before the council. “It isn’t fair that we have to live in the city and face the problems and the taxes and someone like him who controls our money, should live somewhere else,” he said.

I told Andy it would be a mistake to tell the council about Fred. I explained to him that Fred helped the residents more by telling the truth about some of the problems in the city than by living in the city.

But Andy told the council during the public session. The next day, The Record made it the lead of the story. I buried it in my story, leading with the possible axing of some of the city’s social programs, which I considered to be more important.

One of my editors said I should have lead with Fred’s residency. “This is a good story, why wasn’t it higher?”

“The social programs affect more people,” I said. I only received a shake of the head. “Why didn’t you know about this sooner?” I didn’t answer.

Fred lost his job and took a better-paying one with the State Department of Community Affairs.

The new city finance director was a good friend of the mayor. She pleasantly referred almost all questions to him.