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Editor column: What happens when sources change their tune?

Published March 3, 2013 6:46 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

What is a reporter to do when a story changes in the minutes and hours after it is first published?

News has never been more fluid than it is in this day of digital reporting and publishing. In The Salt Lake Tribune newsroom, we post many stories to sltrib.com as soon as possible. Those stories develop as we do more reporting and as a situation evolves.

That fluidity can be influenced by the story itself. Sometimes, it seems, players in a story want the story to change.

It happened last week when we published a report online about Utah veterans vocal in their criticism of Gov. Gary Herbert's plan — via new legislation — to put an economic-development emphasis on the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs, an office created and devoted to helping vets re-enter and thrive in civilian life.

Herbert's plan would add another emphasis to the office: Support Utah military facilities threatened by federal budget cuts.

Our story was published Wednesday morning and quoted Frank Maughan, chairman of the Veterans Advisory Council, and others. Maughan's point was that, by expanding the department's mission, it would weaken its core responsibility of helping vets.

Said Maughan: "I haven't talked to a single veteran from 94 to 24 who thinks this is a good idea."

So our military reporter, Kristen Moulton, was surprised to receive an email from the governor's office later in the day informing her that Maughan and other veterans had gathered at the Capitol that afternoon. In a meeting with the governor's deputy chief of staff and Rep. Greg Hughes, sponsor of the bill, they signed a statement saying they believed the change would be good for "Utah's veterans and their families."

Mike Mower, the governor's representative, and Hughes say the meeting had been planned for days, that the veterans' concerns were well-known and that this was a chance to hear directly from them. The veterans confirm that and say they received some concessions in the meeting.

But Hughes acknowledges that the statement they asked the veterans to sign was a result of Moulton's story, which hadn't yet appeared in The Tribune's print edition.

So what is a reporter, and her editor, to do when sources do a public about-face? Kill the story? Rewrite it and change the criticism to support? Or simply lay out the chain of events and let readers decide what's really going on?

The final alternative is the road we chose, and we played it at the top of Thursday's front page.

Hughes says the bill is still being written, he is committed to getting it right and veterans will be well-served in the end. That's a credible promise from a legislator who has carried many bills supporting vets, including the one elevating the department to a Cabinet-level position in 2007.

Still, vets at Wednesday's meeting remain wary. Bill Dunlap, commander of the Utah Department of the American Legion who served in Vietnam, put the new plan in this perspective: "It's doable … [but] ask me in two years."

Dunlap, Maughan and others will be watching. So will we.

Terry Orme is a managing editor at The Tribune. Reach him at orme@sltrib.com

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