Ombudsman

Borf Confidential

By Michael Getler
Sunday, July 17, 2005

This column is not about White House powerhouse Karl Rove or New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who went to jail rather than reveal a confidential source, or Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper, who got a last-minute "Get Out of Jail Free" card from Rove in the never-ending investigation of who leaked the name of an undercover CIA agent to columnist Robert D. Novak two years ago. But this column is about confidentiality and the various ways in which the press grants anonymity to sources and how that is often confounding to readers.

Back on June 23, a routine story appeared on the front page of the weekly District Extra section of The Post about the city's battle against the spread of graffiti. The story reported that removal teams from the Department of Public Works responded to 1,121 complaints in 2004, roughly twice as many as the year before. Oddly, it didn't report how much this cost taxpayers (about a half-million dollars last year, according to a DPW spokesperson, and budgeted for $800,000 this year). The first sentence of the story was simply: "Bye-bye, BORF." That was a reference, also not explained in the story, to a particularly familiar, often large and imaginative brand of graffiti spread around the city by a person who signs his work "Borf."

Then on Thursday, the Style section splashed across its front page a fascinating and well-reported story by Libby Copeland about the arrest of the graffiti artist known as Borf. The story reported his real name (John Tsombikos, an 18-year-old art student from Great Falls), and extensive interviews in which the young man explained why he did these things. The reporter revealed that she had carried out four interviews over several months with "a young man claiming credit for the Borf graffiti" but who would not give his real name.

The story also explained further that "The Post was able to ascertain his identity . . . independently, but did not publish a story because the man's condition for granting interviews was anonymity. He agreed, however, that if he was arrested or his identity became public, The Post would be released from this condition."

The story attracted a lot of attention. Some people simply don't like feature stories about alleged criminals, terrorists, insurgents or other miscreants because they feel such stories often are "sympathetic" or "glorify" the subject or deed. I didn't have that reaction, but several readers did read it that way, focusing especially on the destructiveness to public and private property and that this "artist" expressed himself all over the District rather than in Great Falls.

But it was The Post's unusual journalistic involvement in this story that struck other readers as also questionable and that attracts the attention of the ombudsman as well.

Here's how one reader put it: "How nice that your reporters protected this budding criminal. As a resident of D.C., I hope that the punishment includes making restitution to the city and businesses who had to clean up his messes." This reader calls The Post and the young man's parent "enablers" in his criminal activities. Several readers, in an online chat with columnist Marc Fisher about a different subject, raised questions about the story. One asked why the paper didn't pass this on to the police and says "I think the Post missed its responsibility to the community here." Another asked whether the recently arrested "BTK" serial killer (or the local serial arsonist, as another reader messaged) had called in mid-spree "would the Post policy have been the same?" A staffer here asks, "Why did we promise limited confidentiality to someone who we knew, or had strong reason to believe, was continuing to commit crimes, and what role did the fact that we were preparing to write a story about him have in egging him on to even more spectacular feats? What are our obligations as journalists and citizens in a situation like this?"

These are all excellent and, at times, vexing questions for journalists. Style's top editor, Deborah Heard, says, "Sometimes having a confidential conversation with someone is the only path that lets you get into a story. When we started reporting about Borf we didn't know his identity, but we were able to track down someone who claimed to be him. The only way that person would talk to us was if we agreed to confidentiality at that point. He never did tell us his name.

"Libby Copeland continued to talk to the man, hoping she could persuade him to identify himself, and she continued reporting the story from other sources. His arrest gave us the information we needed to confirm his identity, and it freed us to use those interviews we had with him. As for the questions about whether our reporting influenced his behavior, I seriously doubt it. His work was all over town and all over the Internet when we first started reporting the story. Other newspapers reported on his work months ago without naming him."

Executive Editor Leonard Downie adds: "Our policy is to immediately notify the authorities if we come into contact with anyone we know has committed a serious crime or threatens to harm anyone, including themselves. Until this young man was arrested and identified, we did not know who he really was or whether he had committed any crime."

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail atombudsman@washpost.com.


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