On Thursday, the Williamson Daily News in southern West Virginia unleashed a spirited and somewhat bizarre attack on an unnamed TV news station in an editorial, accusing it of coverage that was “irresponsible at best, defamation at worst.”
Though the editorial didn’t actually identify the target of its ire, the newspaper was referring to a May 20 report by WCHS, an ABC affiliate about 80 miles away in Charleston. The station had broken news about an investigation into public officials at a courthouse in Mingo County, where the Williamson newspaper is based. In the piece, weekend anchor and reporter Kallie Cart said the station had learned the FBI and state police were looking into “alleged election violations” and “other possible federal crimes.”
“We were in Mingo County on Monday and learned that a federal grand jury recently met and that indictments are expected soon,” Cart says in the segment. “We have also confirmed through numerous sources that investigators are targeting the county’s only judge.” Cart named the judge along with another public official. And though she credited “numerous sources” for the information, she didn’t say who they were.
The report didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Joshua Byers, the regional editor for Civitas Media, which owns the Williamson Daily News and four other community papers in southern West Virginia, told me that reporters at the paper had been looking into similar allegations for months, but didn’t have enough credible information to publish, and the paper wasn’t going to do so without on-the-record sources or proper documentation.
“The rumors in the community about this have been rampant,” Byers said.
It should be noted here that Mingo County has a long, embarrassing history with Boss Hogg-style politics and public corruption. In the late 1980s more than 50 public officials in this corner of coal country—from school board members to cops to county officials—went to jail for crimes ranging from bribery, perjury, and embezzlement to drug-dealing and jury tampering. The New York Times reported at the time that federal prosecutors said they’d “never seen corruption quite so pervasive.”
It should also be noted that the late editor of the Williamson Daily News, a newsroom legend named Wally Warden, was a crusader against that culture of corruption. “His newspaper was credited with supporting and often leading federal drug and political corruption probes in Mingo County,” read an obituary in The Charleston Gazette when Warden died of Hodgkin’s Disease in 1991.
So it’s striking that now, two decades later, that same paper has attacked another news organization for reporting on possible political corruption in Mingo County. Parsing the editorial, the objections seem to be: 1) the use of unnamed sources is wrong, 2) an ongoing investigation is not itself a newsworthy event, and 3) those out-of-towner journalists are reckless because they don’t have any connection to the consequences.
Here’s how it begins:
It’s been no secret that there have been rumblings over at the Mingo County Courthouse in recent months, but we were shocked when a television station in Charleston decided to hide behind anonymous sources and report on an event that simply hasn’t happened yet and may never happen.
It’s irresponsible at best, defamation at worst.
We don’t report on rumor. It’s not what we do.
We don’t hide behind anonymous sources. It’s not what we do.
The editorial goes on to say the paper understands how “it’s easy for television media to jump the gun on a potential big story,” because those Charleston reporters don’t live in the area. “They won’t see those that they’ve unjustly attacked at the grocery store or at a youth baseball game,” it reads. “It’s easy to hide behind anonymous sources when you are not invested in the community… We want what’s best for our community and right now, what’s best, is not to perpetuate rumors.”
Here’s the rest, excerpted at length because it really is something:
Perhaps television media just doesn’t understand what real journalism is. The job of a journalist is to find out what really happened. Inexperienced reporters will often use anonymous sources because they’re not able to convince the sources that the information they have is important. We think that’s just lazy. A good reporter can get someone to go on record, if indeed there is something factual there.
If there is a story to be told about legitimate allegations against any of our county officials, you can be sure you’ll be able to read the facts in our news pages. And we promise our readers that we’ll be fair with the story and present both sides because after all, we have a lot more than 30 seconds to tell the story.
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.
“We want people to know that when they read things in our newspaper it’s legitimate, it’s fact-based and it’s two-sided,” he said. “Whether we believe they have sources with knowledge of an investigation isn’t the point. I don’t see them reporting on the daily events in Mingo County that affect the community. Our editorial speaks as much for our newspaper’s integrity as it does the pulse of our community.”
But the Daily News ended up expressing its view in a peculiar way. Byers said the paper struggled with whether to name the station or be specific about the story it was editorializing about, before ultimately deciding not to.
It’s clear, though that people in Mingo County knew about the story and were talking about the TV report—indeed, the editorial would have made little sense to someone who didn’t know that backstory. The Daily News doesn’t have a monopoly on what gets reported on in its backyard; if the paper thinks somebody else is getting it wrong, it can better serve its community—and make the argument for its position—by “guiding readers through the sea of information,” as a recent BuzzFeed essay argued. If predictions from sources involved in any investigation about what’s going to happen are not to be trusted, or there are reasons why investigations aren’t newsworthy, help readers understand why.
It’s clear that residents of Mingo County shouldn’t be shocked by allegations of public corruption, given the area’s history. Just as clearly, reporting on present-day scenarios should be aggressive but rigorous and accurate. Is it still Corruption County, USA? We’re going to have to wait for a follow-up report—wherever it comes from.
Correction: This post originally misidentified which WCHS employee said he spent about 10 summers near Mingo County while growing up and married a woman from a nearby county. The employee in question was Kennie Bass, not Matt Snyder.
The post also attributed several direct quotations to Snyder that were made by Bass. The relevant section has been revised. CJR regrets the errors.
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