Reporters often operate on gut instinct. But they are obligated to nail down facts. It is this process of verification that separates journalism from mere dissemination of information. So how, when you have a single source, do you square gut instinct that tells you that you're on to a good story with an absence of verifiable facts?
This is no hypothetical. The Post's Virginia desk received a call from an employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs on Oct. 28, relating a story being told by a colleague about a hair-raising commute into Washington. "Commuting is our life out here," said Marylou Tousignant, the assistant Virginia editor who works out of the Fairfax bureau. "Your days are filled with how you're going to get from Point A to Point B." So they were all ears in the bureau. By the end of the day, having acted on the news tip, reporter Eric Wee wrote a story for the Oct. 29 paper: "Commuter's Ride Turns Harrowing." This was a "slice of life" sort of story about commuters, or slugs, who line up to catch rides with strangers so that the driver can use the car-pool lanes and the "slugs" can save money and time.
The commuter of the headline, Jonathan McBride, found himself in the front passenger seat of a sport-utility vehicle traveling at 65 mph on I-395 when the driver passed out. The story describes how McBride swung into action to save the day and included dialogue between McBride and the driver, who regained consciousness, and between McBride and a female passenger. At the time he was interviewed by Wee, McBride knew the names of neither the driver nor the other passenger, and, as a reader noted, the published story hinged entirely on McBride's account of what happened and his recollection of what others said. "Don't The Post and Wee owe readers more investigation before publication? . . . What is worse," the reader asked, "not publishing a good heroic deed or risking publishing a falsehood?"
"We were not naive about this," insisted Tousignant. Wee explained: "I spoke to him at length, going over and over and over his story in detail. He was absolutely consistent in the retelling of the story. And his rendering didn't aways paint him in the most positive light. . . . In the end, his story had the ring of truth, and he came across as being straight about this." But that was just the beginning of the reporting process. McBride thought the other passenger worked in the World Bank building; Wee contacted the press office there but got little cooperation. He called the Virginia State Police, but received only confirmation that McBride had called; he could not reach any of the dispatchers who might have spoken to McBride. "In the end," Wee said, "I think we constantly make judgments about how credible a source is."
This was, Wee and his editors agreed, a story that would resonate with commuters, but one that had to go into the paper the next day or never. "Waiting a day would have lost the immediacy of the story, which is something that goes into our thinking too," said Scott Vance, the Virginia editor for the Metro section. No one involved with the story slept too easily that night, but their trust in McBride was vindicated the next day when he ran into the woman, got her name and a telephone number and passed that information on to Wee. Once he reached her, she confirmed McBride's account and added other details. You could practically hear the sighs of relief in the newsroom.
"I don't think it establishes a precedent," Vance said. "The type of story that it was played into whether we went with a one-source story or not. It wasn't a story about allegations about somebody, which is clearly where rules about sourcing and corroboration are still fast and firm."
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