"Before covering crime it's something I never had encountered, this idea that people had such a fear of giving their names" to a reporter.
Kim Minugh, The Bee's crime reporter, made that comment during The Bee newsroom's monthly ethics discussion last Tuesday.
The topic was the thorny issue of naming sources – most importantly, when we think it's OK to protect the identity of a source and why we strive to name more often than not.
Named, vetted sources are a cornerstone of credible reporting. Even when we don't plan to disclose the identity of a source when we publish, we still require reporters to identify sources to their editors. That's how editors vet the reporting and decide whether to allow anonymity or simply not use the information.
Minugh and reporter Ed Fletcher proposed protecting sources recently as they reported the story of the brutal slayings of 23-year-old Alina Bukhantsov and her two young children in their Rancho Cordova home. Husband Denis Bukhantsov found the bodies and his unharmed 6-month-old son. In the ensuing days Denis' brother, Grigoriy Bukhantsov, was charged with the crime.
It was no easy task talking to neighbors who were understandably concerned a killer was at large. Several interviewed by Minugh and Fletcher were reluctant to give their full names and at least one gave two fake names before revealing his real identity. It reminded Minugh of another news story earlier this year involving a shooting of a small boy on Loucreta Drive in Sacramento.
"It's just a different world in some of these neighborhoods," she said about the Loucreta Drive shooting. As she interviewed neighbors and asked who they were, even her promise to protect their identity didn't help.
"They laughed at me. And they're like, 'No! You are not getting our names.' That's the world they live in," Minugh said at the ethics session. She later elaborated, "These people often live in neighborhoods where gang members and other criminals rule through intimidation and threats there's a pervasive culture of fear."
Senior Editor for Investigations Scott Lebar is one of three editors who can sign off on a decision to grant anonymity to a source. Managing Editor Tom Negrete and I are the other two. In our coverage of the Rancho Cordova murders, Lebar allowed one person to be quoted anonymously because of safety concerns before Grigoriy Bukhantsov was arrested. Other sources simply were not used until Bukhantsov was arrested and they allowed their names to be used.
"It has to do with journalistic practices and proceeding in a way that we've made every effort we can to document these are real people we are talking to," Lebar said during the ethics discussion. "That's what distinguishes us compared to a lot of information out there. We go to a great effort to provide information that we can verify, that we can vouch for."
What The Bee is balancing is its responsibility toward readers vs., in some cases, its responsibility toward sources.
Local news editor Maury Macht gave the example of a story in which a source is a witness to a violent crime. "Obviously we're not going to identify that person; we could get them killed."
Identifying sources, though, isn't usually a matter of life and death. More often it's a way to hold people accountable for statements and opinions, whether elected officials or powerful members of the community. It's also a way for us to reflect the community back to you, as you see friends or neighbors quoted in our coverage.
In October Cynthia Hubert was asked to withhold a name as she reported a story that crews of homeless people blamed for trashing parts of downtown Sacramento would work to clean the area. She interviewed longtime local activist Bob Slobe, who later said she couldn't quote him.
Yet Slobe is as experienced at talking to reporters as a local politician. For such sources we hold them to their agreement to talk to us on the record. We quoted Slobe by name in the story.
Part of Tuesday's ethics discussion was a reminder of our past and how that motivates editors' efforts to vet reporting. Two high-profile Bee writers left amid allegations of fabricating sources – longtime columnist Diana Griego Erwin and political writer Dennis Love. Griego Erwin denied the allegations, but an extensive Bee investigation found we could not authenticate dozens of her sources. Love admitted to plagiarizing and fabricating.
In the aftermath editors redoubled efforts to ensure accurate sourcing, with an emphasis on vetting and naming sources. In addition to our written ethics policy we have a separate policy on naming sources that guides us through decisions we face daily.
That policy sets a high bar:
"Anonymous sources will be allowed only when the value of the story and the benefits of the information to our readership clearly outweigh the potential for skepticism and erosion of credibility that arises with use of such sources."
"It's just a different world in some of these neighborhoods. ... They laughed at me. And they're like, 'No! You are not getting our names.' That's the world they live in." KIM MINUGH, Bee reporter