Public editor

When people decline to comment, their voices may go unheard

Updated: 2013-11-13T01:18:42Z


The Kansas City Star

In any news event involving multiple people, there will always be varying accounts of exactly what occurred. Obviously, journalists should do their best to include these different points of view when telling the story.

So what should happen when sources on one side of a contentious issue decline to talk to a reporter? I’ve been collecting examples that illustrate this conundrum for several years now. Because these people were emphatic that they didn’t want their viewpoints to be published, I have omitted identifying details here.

The incident I remember most vividly came about a few years years ago when there was an abrupt change at a local service organization. The group’s leader resigned amid allegations of mismanagement, telling The Star’s reporter that his critics were waging a personal vendetta against him.

After the story appeared, I received a call from two people who said they had worked closely with the resigned leader for many years, both in the immediate past and at another business. They painted a picture that differed widely from the condemnations that drove him from his position. The people who brought forth the complaints were volunteers inexperienced in the field and prone to emotional histrionics, my callers claimed.

The supporters’ stories were compelling. They offered me verifiable evidence of their past involvement with the ousted official, and of their own professional expertise.

However, they flatly refused to let me pass their contact information along to the reporter and editor working on the story. They said they feared retaliation themselves from the objectors, and didn’t want to add fuel to what they considered an already-unjustified firestorm.

Another time, I received email from a man who was concerned and frustrated over a story in the Business section about the economic health of a major local industry. One of the people interviewed was a prominent figure in that line of work.

The reader who contacted me said his family business supplies materials to this community, and he claimed this particular man is notorious for obtaining required professional documents through unethical means.

Again, though, my emailer declined when I asked if he could provide further information for a reporter to follow up on, citing worries about his own career.

There’s no question that speaking to a journalist can bring on attention, and I’m often sympathetic to people who hadn’t fully realized how many people their stories can reach through The Star before going on the record.

One young woman recently reached out to a reporter to offer herself as an example for a story about the neighborhood she lived in. After it was published, she had a change of heart about how much information she had shared. The horse had already left the barn when it comes to the print edition, but editors complied with her request to remove some personal details online.

It’s the journalist’s responsibility always to make sure sources are crystal clear about the fact that what they say may make its way into news coverage.

Anonymous sources are problematic, and The Star’s Code of Ethics generally discourages using them. When a reporter can’t find anyone to speak on behalf of a certain point of view, that just might mean a significant part of the story can’t be told.

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 weekday mornings or send email to Follow him at

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