Those are fighting words, and staffers at WCHS took to Twitter Thursday to defend themselves. For her part, Cart said she was confident in her reporting. And she took her own shot at the Daily News: “[T]hey clearly didn’t go to journalism school and don’t read real newspapers. I trust my sources and the story needs to be told,” she tweeted. By the end of the day, she appeared tired of the argument, tweeting, “For the record regarding Mingo story, We don’t report rumors, my sources are involved in the investigation. I stand by my story. #endofstory.”
I caught up by phone Thursday with Matt Snyder, the news director for WCHS, and Kennie Bass, a reporter for the station. Unsurprisingly, they defended their station’s work and were upset about the editorial.
“I was disappointed that another news organization, rather than tending to its own business and working hard and working sources and pounding the street and getting a story, criticized someone else without really having any basis in fact,” Bass said. “They threw out some pretty reckless accusations about rumor and sloppy reporting.”
Bass shared some of the history of Mingo County and said he took umbrage at his news crew being considered outsiders. He said he had spent 10 summers with relatives who live near Mingo County and married a woman from the area.
He also offered some local color about the place that I can’t resist including here: “It’s just small town politics in southern West Virginia where a quart of whiskey and a firm handshake will get you a vote.”
As for the use of anonymous sources, Snyder said, the station doesn’t have a set policy, but makes decisions on a case-by-case basis underpinned by trust in his reporters and trust in their sources. Bass told me the station rarely if ever goes with one source, and “everything gets corroborated.”
Snyder also told me WCHS reporters had been hearing about potential misdeeds in Mingo County for a long time, but—before the reporting that led to the May 20 segment—hadn’t been able to confirm anything, even on background with sources they’d known for years. The station didn’t compromise its credibility in a race to be first, he insisted.
Later Thursday night, Snyder sent me an email.
“Our reporter did the work, and confirmed the information through multiple sources directly involved in the investigation; we stand behind her story,” he wrote. “But again, it was not about being first. We were thorough; we waited until we were comfortable with our facts and then made the editorial decision to move forward.”
Byers, the regional editor, told me the editorial was about the newspaper taking a stand and speaking for the community. Because the Daily News had been looking into reports of an investigation and hadn’t come up with anything it felt it could report, some at the paper couldn’t believe it when they heard they might get scooped by a TV station almost two hours away.
“Their story came out and I thought, ‘Well that’s nothing,’” Byers said. “There were no facts there.” The station’s report didn’t give identifiers to its unnamed sources, such as whether they were in law enforcement or otherwise, he noted. And the broadcast’s language about the scope of the investigation, and the severity of the alleged wrongdoing, was vague.
Those are fair enough criticisms, as far as they go. Ample details and documentation can do a lot to support a story based on anonymous sources, as The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. wrote on Twitter, and the WCHS segment didn’t really have that.
And, obviously, dealing carefully with anonymous sources can be tricky. You have to make sure they’re not giving you bad info to push an agenda, or echoing a common flawed data point. And if the WCHS story turns out to be wrong—if those indictments don’t come to pass—the station will owe its readers and the subjects of its reporting an accounting of why it got and relayed bad information.
But a serious investigation of prominent public officials, with indictments imminent, is a newsworthy story. And anonymous sources can be a legitimate reporting tool, used carefully. Was WCHS right to have confidence in the credibility of its information? At this point it’s impossible to say from the outside; the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
For his part, Byers said some readers had started questioning the paper about why it hadn’t reported anything, and people in the community were talking about the TV news report. The editorial gave the paper an opportunity to address the issue.