By: Joe Strupp
Who told you that?
Arizona columnist’s firing raises sourcing questions
When The Arizona Republic fired columnist Julie Amparano recently after she failed to prove the existence of nearly a dozen sources, industry observers branded the 39-year-old writer an embarrassment to journalism and another in a string of reporters who have crossed the ethical line.
But the case of Amparano, who was dismissed last month after being given 24 hours to produce the sources, also raises the question of how much information reporters need to obtain from those they interview to prove their existence.
While most would agree with Amparano’s contention that not all reporters verify the exact identity of every person they interview ? especially in “man-on-the-street” pieces ? the idea that a reporter is not able to prove the existence of a source quoted in a story is a valid cause for concern, according to journalism veterans.
“The responsibility of the journalist is to know who the person is that they are interviewing and be able to find them later on,” says Steve Geimann, a veteran Washington journalist and chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.
“But it is excessive to expect reporters to do an identity check on everyone they talk to. I think expecting reporters to check ids against dmv [Department of Motor Vehicles] records goes too far.”
But others, such as Keith Woods, who teaches media ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., say accountability and precision are such important facets of journalism that every effort to confirm a source’s identity is critical.
“It is reasonable to expect that some of the people you contact for stories provide phone numbers and names,” says Woods. “When you don’t, it is reasonable for editors to become suspicious. It is prudent to keep that kind of paper trail.”
Amparano was fired Aug. 20 after a two-day editorial review of her columns failed to prove the existence of some sources.
The review began after co-workers speculated that Amparano might have made up sources’ names. One red flag was raised when a person named “Jennifer Morgan” appeared in two columns with different occupations listed. A further review showed that the same woman was mentioned in two previous stories Amparano had written as a reporter in the past, which listed the woman with still other occupations.
In the end, 20 sources could not be found or substantiated, according to Republic editors. They say 15 of those names were turned over to a private investigator, who found that 11 could not be traced.
Ray Wilkerson, assistant managing editor at The Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, says any reporter or columnist who cannot prove his or her sources should be held accountable, no matter what the story.
“It’s an absolute follow-through request,” says Wilkerson. “If people are talking to you, most would be willing to share that kind of information. If they won’t, there are a lot more people on the street” to interview.
But John V.R. Bull, ombudsman for The Philadelphia Inquirer, says the demand for source information should vary depending on the story. “If you quote someone, you need to get their name and where they live,” he says. “But it might be too much to ask them to pull out a driver’s license. Especially when you get into columns, it can get murky.”
Steve Coll, managing editor for The Washington Post, agrees. “It depends on the context a lot,” he says. “Should every reporter in every case be able to prove the existence of every source? No. You have to use common sense.”
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, considered by many in the industry to be a basis for ethical direction, does not specifically address the issue of confirming source identities. The only advice it offers in that regard is to “test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.”
The code also says to “identify sources whenever feasible” and “recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials.”
Amparano, who has hired an attorney to prepare a defamation suit against the Republic, says she is attempting to track down and prove the existence of each source and vows to clear her name.
In a column published Aug. 29, Re-public ombudsman Richard de Uriarte writes that 20 people phoned him with comments about the firing, most supporting the decision.
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(copyright: Editor & Publisher September 4, 1999) [Caption]