12.18.2007

TS - 12/11/2007 Who owns the 'facts'?

Who owns the 'facts'? 12/11/2007

The Times-Standard's story about a grand jury indictment of two police commanders once again raised questions about using anonymous sources.

Our source in last Wednesday's story said the grand jury had handed up indictments of former Eureka Police Chief Dave Douglas and Lt. Anthony Zanotti for involuntary manslaughter in the officer-involved shooting of Cheri Lyn Moore in 2006, and predicted they would appear in court on Monday -- which they did, although their arraignment was continued until Feb. 21.

Grand jury proceedings are intended to be secret, unless opened to the public by the judge, which rarely happens. In fact, under law the transcript of the proceedings is supposed to be kept from the public until 10 days after the court clerk is informed of the grand jury's decision.

Some readers questioned our judgment, wondering how information obtained from a confidential source can be reported as “fact,” and how far we would trust any other anonymous sources.

The whole issue of unnamed sources makes editors uncomfortable. The ethics have been debated for decades. Most of us would prefer to have all sources be on the record, and have all public and private organizations be open and

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forthright about what happens and why.
But in reality, silence is the default mode for many public officials. In Washington, secrecy and selective anonymous leaking is done for reasons of power and politics. On the North Coast, it's usually because officials fear criticism by the highly vocal populace. What the people don't know, is the reasoning, they can't disagree with.

To be a successful strategy, that requires a compliant and complacent press. However, our job is to find out what's going on and tell the story, not to be an arm of government. At least, that's how democracy is supposed to work. So if the decision is between accepting an official “no comment” and printing nothing, or finding out the story by other means, we choose to listen to whomever will talk to us.

If it's a big enough story -- and the shooting of the mentally ill Moore justifiably can be called the biggest story in Eureka in the past couple of years -- we'll even listen to anonymous sources.

It should be remembered that there are no secrets about what happened on April 14, 2006. The coroner held a public inquest with all the details. The only question for more than a year and half has been: Will District Attorney Paul Gallegos decide to charge any police officers?

And here is an example of how secrecy creates ethical dilemmas: On Oct. 11, Gallegos informed -- us off the record -- that his office was passing the indictment decision to a criminal grand jury, which he planned to convene on Nov. 5. He requested that the Times-Standard refrain from publishing a story about his plan, because it potentially could taint the jury pool. Further, he said, if we ran a story, he would not confirm his plans for the record, and in fact could put off calling a grand jury till 2008.

It was Hobson's Choice: Run a half-story or no story at all. In the end, we published a story with the only “official” comment we had from the DA: That he was “considering” calling a grand jury soon. (We could have quoted Gallegos as an anonymous source about himself; Henry Kissinger used that technique to float his own baloons. But in this case the public Gallegos could have refuted the private Gallegos -- a bizarre scenario.)

As it happened, the DA did call the grand jury on Nov. 5.

The episode left a bad taste, which is why we were interested to hear from a highly knowledgeable source last week that Gallegos was keeping a lid on the grand jury's indictment, and was going to arraign Douglas and Zanotti on Dec. 10, without public notice.

After considerable internal debate, we went with the story. Our decision process was similar to Associated Press guidelines, which say that material from anonymous sources may be used only if:

1. The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.

2. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.

3. The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.

All those applied in this case, in spades; they may not the next time.

Meanwhile, the judge in Monday's hearing decided to keep the grand jury's indictment and transcript secret for another 10 weeks. Here we go again . . . .

Rich Somerville is the editor of the Times-Standard.

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