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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