Wendy Zabel didn’t pull any punches in answering questions about how women live behind bars. I interviewed her in her home: a high-security prison in Florida where she’s lived for almost two decades.
She described illegal activities that ranged from inmate loan sharking to “cloaking” (where inmates are “hired” by guards to act as lookouts during sexual liaisons with their charges). She even detailed her gay lifestyle inside and how she was able to finagle a way for her longtime partner to live in her cellblock.
Wendy, a “lifer” sentenced as a teenager to three consecutive 25-year sentences with no hope of parole, was an important source for a non-fiction book I was writing on women behind bars. I came to know her during a series of in-person interviews conducted over a two-year period of time, and we also communicated through a regular exchange of letters. She provided information I had yet to nail on the record due to its explosive nature. And she had credible backup to support her claims.
From the beginning, though, I was concerned about retaliation against her from guards, administrators and even other inmates once her comments were published. (At the time of our interviews, Wendy said she had ceased being a loan shark and no longer participated in cloaking schemes.)
Wendy always assured me she had enough clout inside – both with the convict and “cop” culture – to handle any repercussions or retaliation sent her way. Yet unlike other whistle-blowers from industry or government, I knew she had few protected rights and no place to run if it came to that. I also knew that payback in the prison culture was often subtle – but effective.
As we got deeper into her story, I began to wonder where my responsibility began and ended when it came to protecting my source. Should I continue to bring up the question of her safety – maybe pushing her to reconsider being part of the story? Should we discuss anonymity, and thus reduce the impact of her words? Was there ever a story so important that the greater good argument prevailed over a source’s personal safety?
I teach media ethics at Cal Poly State University in California, and I tell my students that many ethical decisions reporters face are no-brainers. Don’t accept gifts; don’t sleep with sources; don’t profit from inside information. In particular, I lecture them, don’t make promises you can’t or don’t intend to keep.
But what about the tougher choices – those seemingly black-and-white decisions that quickly pale to gray once the dilemma is thrust under the ethical microscope?
What about the small-town dentist who threatened to commit suicide if I revealed his name and a lapse in medical judgment that set off a chain of events leading to the death of his patient? Was any story worth a life? If so, based on what criteria? (My newspaper decided not to use his name.) Or, in another story, was it my responsibility to evaluate the mental health of a source who willingly went on record about the day he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge – and lived to tell about it? Would my story of that crucial day in his life, which later catapulted him to celebrity status on the daytime talk show circuit, lead to another suicide attempt once the spotlight faded? (As far as I know, he has not repeated his suicide attempt. But I continue to worry.)
How journalists cultivate and interact with their sources often is a personal decision based on a number of variables that may include industry standards, peer pressure and personal ethics developed over many years of reporting in the field. Some say they would never talk a conflicted source into going on the record – no matter how important the story. Others say this decision, or how hard they push or “bring out” a source, is made on a case-by-case basis. In the end, though, being up front and truthful is always the bottom line.
In the early years of being a journalist, the drive to get the story may take precedent over all else, some reporters say. But Peggy Townsend, longtime reporter for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, said drive and competition quickly take a back seat “when you see the power of the press and how it impacts people.”
While politicians and other media-savvy sources get little coaching from Townsend, others who are more naive and vulnerable to the power she represents are treated with her personal reporter’s credo of “do no harm.”
In a recent story about teenage social cliques at a local school, Townsend said she hung out with students to learn about the social pecking order. At the bottom was “the dirts,” a group of students everyone picked on.
“I was concerned about the impact a newspaper story might have on these kids who refer to themselves this way and, after the story was published, of them being made fun of even more,” said Townsend. “So we talked about this and what it was like to be in the newspaper. I also said, ‘here’s the good thing. I’m giving you a voice to tell how you feel about how you’re being treated.’ “
In the end, Townsend said, the group wanted to be identified. The story turned out to be instructive and empowering to other students and the community at large, who gained a better understanding of the student hierarchy and how damaging this kind of social structure can be.
“A reporter’s need or mission to tell the truth doesn’t mean you have to wound someone in the process,” Townsend said, adding that she would have omitted student names if she had been asked.
For Martha Mendoza, an investigative reporter for The Associated Press, the way she interacts with sources often depends on the specific story and level of risk.
In one story, she and a team of reporters researched and wrote about a mass killing of Korean civilians by American soldiers during the Korean War. Mendoza said she decided to identify some sources and not others who she felt were vulnerable and needed protection.
The best method would be to treat all sources equally, “but sometimes a story calls for something different,” she said.
“In the story about the mass killings, I was able to find some of the veterans who were there. Fifty years had passed, but these men, for the first time, tearfully told how they were ordered to open fire on all these people – mostly women, children and old men.”
For some of the veterans, Mendoza said, it was a cathartic opportunity and they were more than willing to go on the record. But Mendoza said she worried about the fallout on the elderly veterans once the story was published. And she worried if they really understood the potential for backlash.
“I believe in the journalism concept of greater good,” she said. “But doing journalism is not a rationale for doing harm. So I struggled. But I also knew that this was an important story to tell.”
The incident, she said, was common knowledge in South Korea during the Korean War – but the U.S. government always denied it.
“Part of the bigger picture for me was that the U.S. government needs to be truthful about what it does during war. We had the documentation, but without names and faces we felt the American public was not going to buy this story.
“As a reporter, you need to justify this kind of intrusion into someone’s life. These guys were in their 70s and not savvy about the impact such a story would have. You know, cries of ‘baby killers’ and so on. So I talked to the veterans and told them my concerns. Their response? ‘I don’t give a crap – tell the story!’ “
And yet, Mendoza said, her need to protect her sources led to a compromise. Initially the plan was to get all sources on the record. In the end, the reporters named only names of those whose specific stories were crucial to the credibility of the story. Those veterans she and her team felt were especially vulnerable were not named.
After the story was published, there was a campaign to discredit her sources. There was also a Pentagon investigation that confirmed the mass killings. Mendoza and her reporting team were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the story.
Weighing the public’s need to know with concerns for her at-risk sources led Linda Goldston, a veteran reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, to “bend over backward to be up front and truthful” with her sources about the ramifications of a big story she knew would go national. Within hours of the story’s publication on the front page of the Mercury News, it was headlined on CNN. Within 24 hours, it was being broadcast on the nightly news with Dan Rather.
Goldston was investigating charges of child abuse at a daycare center run by the U.S. Army at the Presidio of San Francisco. She was able to document that military officials had known about the abuse but covered it up for at least 10 years.
“I know there are reporters who give no thought to what the impact of a story might be on sources who go on the record, even if that includes the potential for people to lose their jobs, suffer death threats and break up their marriages or families,” Goldston said. “But I’d never ask someone to take those kinds of risks without numerous discussions about the potential fallout. In the Presidio case, I spent two months talking a group of parents, many of them majors and captains in the Army, into going on the record for the story.
“I knew there was no other way to tell that story,” she said. “For the abuse to stop and for changes to be made, the parents had to go on the record.”
An arson fire was set at the Presidio daycare center and several of the parents who talked on the record resigned from the military, but the impact of the story was huge, Goldston said. The report led to the closing of the daycare center in San Francisco, a review of more than 300 military daycare centers worldwide and a congressional subcommittee hearing on sex abuse at military daycare centers.
“That never would have happened if the parents remained anonymous,” Goldston said.
Like Mendoza, Goldston had documentation of the abuse but needed “real people with names and faces” to make the story real to readers.
“My bottom line is to weigh whether or not my sources can make the kind of assessment needed to protect themselves. In the end, it’s up to them to go on the record or not, but I make sure they have all of the information possible to help them make that decision.”
No matter how many years you’ve been in the field, added Goldston, you have to consciously resist treating your sources as talking robots instead of human beings.
“Good reporters never become numb to the feelings, baggage, hopes and dreams of their sources,” she said.
The downside to extending yourself in a personal way, Goldston and other reporters said, is a source confusing good reporting techniques with a budding friendship.
“Building a relationship with a source is an intricate process that starts with getting them to trust you. As a reporter, you’re constantly in and out of people’s intimate lives,” Goldston said. “This is a great responsibility. Sometimes there is a misunderstanding that you want to be friends, that your focus and interest extends well beyond the reporter-source relationship – or the story.
“I think all journalists have examples of sources who, once the story is over and the reporter has gone on to other projects, feel left behind and betrayed that they are no longer the focus of attention. ‘Why don’t you call me anymore?’ they say.
“But it’s the reporter’s responsibility to make clear, at all times, that it is not a friendship, but a professional relationship,” she said. “It can be difficult for both sides. In the end, though, you just have to be willing to take it (the sense of betrayal by your sources) if it comes to that. As long as you haven’t exploited them and you’ve been truthful, well, you’ve done your job well.”
Veteran reporters say they have learned over time to develop their own ethical guidelines when it comes to working with sources. Knowing where the line is – even if you need to step over it on occasion – is an important part to being a responsible reporter, AP’s Mendoza offered.
For Goldston, working within her personal set of ethics with her sources sometimes means striking a compromise or even abandoning the story.
“Sometimes I say, ‘Look, I don’t make a dime more whether you talk to me or not,’” she said.
In fact, being honest with a source, even if it means the collapse of the story, is preferable to operating under false pretenses or coercion, according to the Sentinel’s Townsend. For one story, she was dispatched to write an upbeat story on a man biking across the country to raise money for a charity. She soon discovered that the man had recently been released from prison for shaking his baby to death.
“I got back to the office and I thought to myself, geez, this guy is looking for sponsors. I can’t hide that part of it,” she said.
Instead of surprising him in print, she called the man to say she wouldn’t run the story without mentioning his stint in prison – and the crime. He agreed. Later, after the story was published, they met on the street.
“His sponsorship had dried up and, well, he hated me. But at least I had been up-front and told him the truth.”
In the case of Wendy Zabel, I violated one of my own rules to never make myself part of the story. Wendy and I decided it was important to use her name – despite any risks, real or imagined.
For my part, I called her warden and basically put him on notice. (I had already given him the opportunity to respond to her comments.) I told him I would be watching to make sure she would not suffer any retaliation by agreeing to go on the record. In addition, I told him our telephone conversation would be included in my book. He abruptly terminated the phone call.
So far, Wendy tells me, she’s experienced no ill effect as a result of our interviews. We’ll know more when the book is published.
Teresa Allen is an associate professor of journalism at California Polytechnic State University.