Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Better to be right than to be first

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

Sometimes the role of an editor is to slow things down.

You wouldn't think that on a story as competitive as the battle to keep the Sacramento Kings in town. But reporter-editor relationships have a certain push and pull quality. Reporters must push to be competitive and urgent. Editors – who also like to beat the competition – must make sure that as we rush to break news, we hold true to our standards.

We have pretty strict policies about when we use anonymous sourcing, even though you've seen information in this ongoing story attributed to unnamed sources.

Why is that?

Without revealing names we've agreed to keep confidential – that would be a breach of ethics and of contract – I'll walk you through our work and thinking on this story.

It started Jan. 9, when a sore back woke up reporter Tony Bizjak at 4 a.m. For some reason, he checked his email.

There, in a Google Alert, he discovered that Daina Falk, a food blogger and daughter of an NBA agent, had tweeted that the Kings had been sold. About 300 people already had retweeted the news from Falk's @TheHungryFan. That set off a frenzy of reporting across the country that has yet to let up.

Bizjak had no luck at that hour reaching sources by phone or email. By 6:30 a.m. he was in touch with The Bee's Dale Kasler, and the race was on to find out if it was true.

"We have a huge responsibility to move fast and quickly," Bizjak said. "We're the credible source. People are going to turn to us because they understand on Twitter, on blogs, people can say whatever they want and just be wrong and not have to worry about it."

Indeed, Falk erased her tweet, typically a sign something is wrong, and her father, David Falk, told Kasler such news didn't come from him.

Kasler, Bizjak and Ryan Lillis have been covering the will-they-stay-or-will-they-go Kings saga for years, and during that time have gained the trust of key people tied to the Kings, the city of Sacramento and the NBA. In this go-around, though, everyone was nervous about the story being public. While willing to guide the reporters to the truth, they were not willing to do it publicly.

What the three were able to report that first day was that no formal offer existed yet from the group headed by Seattle financier Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Negotiations with the Maloof family were ongoing. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson held a news conference, as did Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, but neither had details of an impending sale. Eric Rose, spokesman for the Maloofs, said the Kings had nothing to report. All other sources for the story were unnamed.

"In this case, if we didn't have anonymous sources we would have been dead in the water. We would have been left simply quoting Yahoo, Comcast SportsNet, etc. – or doing nothing at all," Kasler said, referring to other media reports that were anonymously sourced. "At least we were able to give our readers less hysterical, and in my opinion more accurate, information about what was going on. There wasn't a deal yet, there wasn't even an offer yet."

Before we agree to protect the names of sources we ask ourselves a few questions. Is the source reputable and in position to know the information? Is the information integral to the story? Does the source have a valid reason for confidentiality? Will the information become public at some point, ensuring confirmation of our sourcing? Is there a different way to get the information on the record? Is the information important to our readers?

Typically, Business Editor Mary Lynne Vellinga is the first to ask these questions of Kasler, Bizjak and Lillis. If she is satisfied with their answers she takes that to Managing Editor Scott Lebar or me, depending on which one of us is available.

A story like this is all over the Internet, on news sites, on personal blogs, on Twitter, Facebook and a variety of other social media sites. The tough part is figuring out what is true. We've repeatedly seen so-called news outlets republish Kings blog gossip without verifying accuracy.

And, Lillis said, the rampant use of anonymous sources "became almost a joke, especially on Twitter."

"A TV reporter in Sacramento actually did a report quoting an anonymous source saying the mayor's plan was progressing well. Why not just ask the mayor if his plan was progressing well?"

It took several days of conversations before the three reporters persuaded key sources to talk to them on the record. One source initially texted Bizjak to say he could never ever quote him by name, then later agreed to talk publicly. Within a week, The Bee was publishing stories with all the sources named.

Getting to that point mattered. Journalists can't hold sources accountable for what they say if they're never named. Anonymous sources can spin the truth and manipulate the media, both mainstream and alternative. Too much anonymity and at some point news stories no longer are credible.

The Kings story continues to evolve and, with it, our decisions about sourcing. On Tuesday, The Bee exclusively reported the identity of two of the "whale" investors discussing a partnership with Sacramento to keep the team – billionaire Ron Burkle and Bay Area investor Mark Mastrov – and attributing the information to an anonymous source. On Friday, The Bee added America's third-richest man to that list, Larry Ellison, attributing the information to Kings minority owner Bob Cook.

The ongoing coverage involves "billionaires who value their privacy, so it isn't surprising that sources are hesitant to divulge details of ongoing negotiations while attaching their names to that information," Lillis said.

Even so, Lillis, Bizjak and Kasler continue to push sources to talk publicly.

"I actually rejected one source's request to be quoted anonymously and was able to convince him to have his name in the story," Lillis said.

This story will have many twists before Johnson meets with the NBA board of governors in April, and I expect The Bee will be first to report most of them. Even if the editors involved call a timeout to challenge anonymous sourcing.