Minneapolis (Dec. 18, 2009) — The Minnesota News Council Thursday issued a decision narrowly supporting the use of anonymous sources in an August report on DFL finances posted by the on-line publication MinnPost.com.
In a hearing on a complaint filed by DFL Chair Brian Melendez against MinnPost, the Council also ruled 12-to-1 that before MinnPost published its original story, reporter Doug Grow gave the DFL an adequate opportunity to respond to the accusations made, but again split 8-to-5 in favor of MinnPost on the question of whether the publication responded appropriately to the issues raised in the DFL Party’s complaint.
Melendez complained that an August 5 MinnPost story, which reported according to “unnamed sources within the party, that the DFL is on the verge of being fined $50,000 by the Federal Elections Commission” was false.
“MinnPost got the story wrong, and it hurt the DFL,” said Melendez during the hearing. “The story was run in August, and it’s now December, and we still haven’t heard from the FEC on this issue, because there is no fine.”
Although DFL officials, including Melendez, vehemently denied the accusations made in the story and requested a retraction on the story, MinnPost stood by its reporting and the standards it used to verify the information provided by the two sources who gave Grow the details of the FEC investigation and the potential fine.
“Doug Grow followed MinnPost’s policies regarding the use of anonymous sources,” said MinnPost Managing Editor Roger Buoen. “Doug had dealt with these sources before and they were reliable. There was no reason not to believe the information he was given.”
Buoen, who helped write MinnPost’s anonymous sources policy said that to use an anonymous source, a reporter must get approval from an editor; tell the editor the source’s name, title and how they got the information; give the accused or affected parties a chance to respond to any allegations made; find a second, independent source to corroborate the information and; should include information about the source and why they know the information being shared with the reader.
When asked if MinnPost’s reliance on anonymous sources for the story was fair, seven council members voted “yes,” and six members voted “no.” Public member Jane Berg noted that as a reader, she would have liked to see less ambiguous language used to describe the sources of the allegation. “‘Sources within the party’ does not tell us much,” Berg said.
Council members also closely questioned reporter Grow on whether his sources had any documentation confirming the size of the fine. “How did the source know the information?” asked media member Thom Fladung, editor of the Pioneer Press. “That’s the most important thing to know.” Grow answered that the providers of the information were “vague” in their response of how they obtained the information, but that they had proven to be “highly reliable” sources in the past and that after careful consideration of the veracity of the sources, the publication decided to move forward with its story.
When asked why he didn’t accept MinnPost’s offer to author a full rebuttal of the story or to be interviewed by a MinnPost reporter, Menendez said he declined because “that would have only given more legs to the story.” “I didn’t want the story told at all because it’s not true,” Melendez said.
About the Minnesota News Council
The Minnesota News Council was founded in 1970 to promote fair, vigorous and trusted journalism; supports the First Amendment rights of the media and the public; encourages free and open access to government information; and provides an independent platform for educating the public, discussing news coverage and mediating citizen complaints. The News Council is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, funded entirely by contributions from individuals, corporations and the media, and accepts no government funding. For more information about the Minnesota News Council, call 612-341-9357 or visit http://news-council.org.