Journo 101: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. And Hunnicutt

In the past week or so, a few news stories ran on Jason Hunnicutt – a candidate for Knox County Criminal Court Clerk, who owed almost $500 to the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. He’s paid in full. The story ends there for most people.

The information on Hunnicutt ran, in some part, on a couple media outlets locally. We received a tip too. Here’s what we did with it. This is us showing our work:

Called Hunnicutt. He told us, like he told the other media outlets, that he didn’t know about the summons or the bill.

Called the hospital’s PR people. They, at the time (about 5 p.m. on a Monday), didn’t have access to their legal department – which could tell them more about any legal proceedings. The following morning, we got a text message from hospital staff saying that Hunnicutt was paid in full.

A debt collection agency called Reports Inc. had been handling the collection on the hospital’s behalf. Hunnicutt told us that there was some dispute about the bill related to an emergency room visit for his son.

We visited the courthouse to see if there was an actual record of the summons to view. This would verify the tip as fact. But there wasn’t a copy to be seen, because once a summons is issued there are only two copies available. The original, and a copy that the defendant would receive. It’s a public document, but in the time that it’s out to be served, a very limited number of people have access to the summons. We did see proof of its existence via court case information, but not the document. Not yet.

The sheriff’s office or a process server – KCPS in this case – delivers papers on behalf of the courthouse. There are other processing services that attorneys can use, too, but that’s irrelevant in this case.

Meanwhile, the summons had been recalled (it actually says it was served April 22), at the request of the attorney John Baugh. We called him too, twice. He did not return messages.

We got a copy of the summons from the courthouse – the official custodian of the record. This is important because of the (outside) possibility of a forged document having been created and released.

And we asked about who could have released the info before the summons had been served and returned. KCPS said they did not release the information. And Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones said he had no knowledge of any such thing.

This leaves the possibility for some other, outside person to have released the information on the summons about Hunnicutt. Or somebody lied. If that’s the case, then we have two key sources with access to civil summons saying for the record that they did not release the information, or had no knowledge of a leak.

Some obvious motivations for broadcasting this information on Hunnicutt would appear to exist, seeing as it is an election season and he is running for office. (One high-ranking Republican in Knox County told me it was “dirty politics.”) We asked Commissioner Mike Hammond – who is also running for office – if he was responsible for the leak. He said no, that he hadn’t heard anything until it was printed in the media.

It’s very typical for a news organization to receive tips. And we don’t reveal our sources. It’s proprietary information. Our mission is to make sure those tips are accurate and protect our sources.

As for how the tip came to me, if you must know, the tipster did not directly contact me at KNS. I’m not sure who, how or where anyone contacted other people in the media landscape, and won’t speculate.

Seeing as how we’re talking about verifying information, I asked a couple journalists in the outer world how they go about verifying tips. Because, you know, this post is all about verifying things, so we may as well verify our verification process.

Jacqui Banaszynski, Knight Chair in Editing, Missouri School of Journalism, Faculty Editing Fellow, The Poynter Institute, on anonymous sources –

First, consider where you work. If you are with a news organization that may have policies about how to handle this, find out (preferably before you accept off-the-record information) so you know if you need to inform an editor at the very least. In other words, don’t fly solo if at all possible. Consider not just the risk to the source but the risk to you and your news organization.

Next, pause before going forward to try to determine why the source wants or needs to remain anonymous, or what s/he really means by that. Don’t assume everyone defines terms or procedures the same way.

There are very few situations that really justify completely anonymous tips. That’s just a game that some in power like to play and that too many journalists allow. So tread carefully and again, don’t fly solo. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor.)

She had some very good comments in addition to this, which you see here: Anonymous Tips.

 

John Robinson, former editor, lecturer at the UNC School of Journalism on when to report a tip –

I think it’s only when you have confirmation from a second source or document. Either that or the person who is your source is the primary source.

That is, Donald Sterling’s ex-girfriend provides you with the tape and says it is her and Sterling being recorded.

It’s easy to go with an anonymous source when it turns out the source is right. But just yesterday both TMZ and NBC (I think) got the Adam Silver ruling from a source, published it and got it wrong. They look cheap and less trustworthy.

And for what? Getting the news out a few minutes before it’s going to come out anyway?

(It’s) Rosenthiel and Kovach’s principles of journalism. “Its essence is the science of verification” or something like that. Good media organizations verify. Sloppy ones get their priorities skewed and think being first is more important than being right.

Associated Press reporter Brock Vergakis on taking a tip to print –

well, it would have to be something factual, not commentary … and the person would have to be in a position to know what he/she is talking aboutand then give whatever the person is talking about a chance to respond … you can’t just run with an anonymous tip, especially in politics

Melanie Faizer, former producer/editor at Bloomberg News, lecturer at University of Tennessee on crediblity and the motivations of tipsters –

People who drop tips often have motivations that are personal (revenge, for example) rather than motivations in the public interest. It’s always best to have a source who agrees to be identified – and then to find a second source to verify. If you end up quoting or using information without identifying the source, better not to lead with that — it takes away from credibility to see the first quote attributed to ‘a source who prefers to remain anonymous.’

 

About Gerald

A reporter in Knoxville, TN. Work (mostly) inside and play (mostly) outside. I'm a part of the X or the Y generation. None of us claim the other.
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