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Olson: Highs and lows of reporting news

Published: Saturday, April 20, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

When the bombs exploded Monday at the Boston Marathon, our focus as a local news organization was finding the people who were there from our area.

Reporter Stephanie Hickman accomplished that about as quickly as any similarly assigned reporter in the country.

Although cellphone communication was nearly impossible, land lines were working fine. Stephanie was able to speak to Julie Suter, Jenna Carpenter, and Lisa Royer, three runners from the area who had finished the race before the attack and were together in a hotel room in Boston.

Within hours, we were reasonably certain that everyone we knew of who was running – the three women, along with other local runners including David Kuhn, a legally blind runner from DeKalb, Robert Willis and John Sullivan of Clare, and Jesse Rangel of DeKalb, were safe.

We were more than 1,000 miles away, so the task of reporting the rest of the details – what had happened, who had been hurt, who could have been behind this – fell to other reporters in and around Boston.

Disinformation reigns: The reporters covering the story did what reporters have always done – they talked to sources, people who had witnessed the event, friends and contacts they had inside investigating agencies, anyone who could provide details about the situation.

It’s a tough position for reporters. There’s a tremendous demand for information, people want them to make sense of the chaos.

The demand for information creates tremendous pressure on reporters to get the basics, fast, and then advance the story faster than any of their competitors.

How to do that when the official channels are on mute? Anonymous sources. 

Trouble often starts with anonymous sources. Often, they have a personal agenda, and although there’s usually at least a kernel of truth in what they’re saying, they don’t have to worry about being correct. They’ve been promised anonymity.

If you noticed, The Associated Press, Boston Globe and CNN didn’t out the people who falsely told them that there had been an arrest made Wednesday in the Boston Marathon bombing.  

We run Associated Press content in our newspaper and on our website, and for a short time, we were reporting that inaccurate information on Daily-Chronicle.com, and we apologize for that inaccuracy.

New light on old ways: Anonymous sources have been feeding reporters questionable information for years. It’s not a new game.

I can remember in 2002, when I was a reporter covering a break in the case of the 1993 killings at a Brown’s Chicken restaurant in Palatine. It was a lot of standing around and waiting at police stations and courthouses, hoping an official source would say something we could build a story around.

One day, a Chicago radio reporter got some bogus information from an anonymous source, and reported it on the air. We heard about it from nervous editors and colleagues, but no one else reported it – the passing of a couple of hours showed it not to be true. Eventually, James Degorski and Juan Luna would be convicted of that crime and sentenced to life in prison.

Today, that bogus report would have been sent out on social media, posted online, probably obtained by at least one other reporter who knew the same leak, and might have been reported by others citing the original reports.

It still would have been wrong, of course. And more people would have been embarrassed.

Rumors have it: Very seldom will you see stories based on comments from anonymous sources by our reporters.

The tips that lead to stories might have come from a source not named in the story – a lot of the best stories start there, actually – but seldom are stories built around an anonymous source.

There are isolated cases where it’s essential to protect people’s identity, although they’re not necessarily sources of information. For example, we make every effort not to identify people who are victims of domestic violence, sex crimes, and other crimes. Sometimes, that means we don’t identify people who are witnesses in the case because we don’t want to people to deduce the identity of the victim.

But the most accurate accounts are built around sources whose names are “on the record.” It’s not always possible, but always preferable.

Then the rains came: As if there wasn’t enough to worry about, then we were flooded.

I probably should have checked the sump pump at some point sooner, but luckily the thing worked. And worked. And worked.

Other people weren’t as lucky, which was obvious given that all of the sump pumps and battery backups were sold out Thursday at the Menard’s in Sycamore.

Even so, we saw this week how people can come together to help each other. Thanks to all the people who volunteered to help fill sandbags at the city of DeKalb’s Streets Department.

Thanks also to the readers who sent us photographs of what they saw in their neighborhoods. We compiled the best submissions into a photo gallery that you can see online at Daily-Chronicle.com.

Alvina Stover of Cortland decided to send us a video Friday of the flotsam and jetsam and standing water around her home.

“Taking a video because a picture doesn’t do it justice,” she says in the short clip, which you also can see on our website.

In addition to our staff-generated photos and video, we received multiple photographs from people of the scenes around our area. There are at least 16 reader-submitted photos online showing the new lakes that formed around the community this week.

Thanks to all of you who shared, and feel free to send more photos in the future to news@daily-chronicle.com.

The information you help us provide to the community is not only interesting, but also can be helpful to people in knowing areas to avoid when standing water can make conditions hazardous.

Today, most everyone can help to report the news, and we can all benefit.  

No watersports: Finally, please don’t take the opportunity to use the temporary lakes in the area for any recreational activity.

Floodwaters can spread disease, and they can hide obstacles that could seriously injure you. It’s like playing in a sewer. Don’t do it.

The upside: At least we’ve written our last drought story for a while. Here’s hoping for a week of dry weather.

• Eric Olson is the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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