Final Case Study: When Reporters Become Part of the Story

This ethical issue stemmed from an experience I personally had working as a reporter this semester. In one of my other classes, I was assigned to cover a community event for a video story and being interested in politics and in particular the election, I decided to follow the Harvard University Democrats as they held a canvassing/leafleting event one weekend to garner more attention for the four questions on this year’s Massachusetts ballot, particularly question 2 about charter schools. They were being joined by the organization “Save Our Public Schools” (No on Question 2). I already had a notion going in that I was going to try and downplay my role as a reporter and more so try to embed myself with the group, so that they would feel more comfortable being on camera and being filmed as they spread the word. This was why I elected not to bring a tripod for instance, because I knew a) it would restrict how much mobility the photographer and I would have when running around with the volunteers and b) it might scare away certain members from talking with me. Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) however each person I asked to interview was decently open to talking on camera, with a mic and all. Only one person denied an interview and that was because she herself was a reporter for Harvard and had a strict policy against doing interviews for other schools. Some of the folks I interviewed also refused to give comments on certain questions, like who they were supporting in the presidential race because that information did not pertain to their current plan of advocacy on the ballot questions. Things were going fairly smoothly until the photographer and I asked to tag along with a member of Save Our Public Schools who was canvassing a Cambridge residential street (because it would provide great visuals). Canvassing involves an activist knocking on doors, having conversations with the residents on the issues, and in the event that the person is not there simply leaving a flier. The activist we followed, who I do not feel comfortable naming as such so I will simply call him Bob, had a list printed out of the names and addresses of the residents he was visiting along with their party registration and other pertinent information. We had already gotten a few quotes from him on camera and were tagging along behind, filming as he went up to doors and knocked and chatted with residents. About halfway through, Bob turned to me, handed me the list and told me to go knock on one apartment while he took another. I was completely taken back by this request, not having expected to be asked to canvass myself when I was in the role of a reporter. Along the way he had been telling us all about how he effectively canvassed and interacted with people, the codes they used to classify their interactions etc. and it occurred to me just then that he was giving us all this information with the apparent idea that he was training us to go out and canvass ourselves. I didn’t know what to say, and the photographer was similarly shocked – we must have had something akin to deer-in-headlights expressions because Bob assured us it would be easy, shoved the clipboard into my hands and then went down the street to his destination. So there I was, standing on someone’s property, trying to find their front door and internally panicking because I clearly could not do this as it would break my integrity as a passive observer of this story, but also wasn’t sure how to handle telling that to Bob who had been such a wonderful source and was giving us great material to work with. It ended up that we couldn’t even find the front door to the apartment and eventually he came back and took the clipboard when we said we weren’t able to find it. I told him then that we were on deadline and had to head back to Northeastern to start editing and the photographer and I exited quickly.

This experience really rattled me, because despite all the wealth of ethical knowledge I had already amassed in my previous work experience and in this class, I felt like in the heat of the moment I simply didn’t know how to handle the dilemma. Clearly the basic principles of reporting the truth and specifically getting the best scoop and access possible for this source were in direct tension with objectivity and remaining removed from the story. In this case, the principles of Golden Rule (treating the source with respect and wanting to befriend him) and deontology (following the general rules of ethical journalism) were clashing. If I didn’t go along with his proposition and knock on some doors, I was worried that it would sour the relationship with my source, and prevent me from collecting further b-roll from him. On the other hand, it’s an accepted rule that journalists should under only extremely rare circumstances actually insert themselves into the action and take part in the events they are covering (which is what I would presumably be doing by canvassing). It was by sheer luck that I was able to get out of the dilemma, but had the photographer and I been able to find the apartment, and the residents inside been home, chances are I might have in that moment decided to take a risk and just give them the information.

Looking at my personal ethics code, I can see that in particular rule #4 is highly applicable to this situation:

Objectivity is an ideal but rarely a possibility. Be fair, be honest, be balanced to an appropriate extent but understand that total neutrality is not always a good thing.

In this instance I was eschewing objectivity entirely, to the point where it almost compromised rule #1 part 1 which states:

Truthfulness/Honesty – This should be your first practice when it comes to reporting. Without truth, you cannot be successful in this line of work.

Would my reporting really be truthful and impartial if I had decided to partake in canvassing, or would that very act have inherently created a bias in my reporting? I would hold that it probably would not have affected my final product, but viewers of my story would also never know that I myself had dropped the hat of a reporter and actually become a symbolic member of “Save Our Public Schools” by helping their cause.

And it was certainly my audience who was the greatest stakeholder in this situation, as they stood to lose the most from my possible transgression. The audience most prominently consisted of my professor, but also included classmates and other persons who follow my class blog. None of them would know the lengths I took to get the footage they were watching, which seems to me that it would almost be like misinforming them or at the very least not being 100 percent transparent.

Examining Kovach and Rosenstiel’s 10 principles of journalism, I look to have violated the fourth tenet (“its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover”) in pursuit of the first tenet (“Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth”). Yet therein lies an interesting observation, because Kovach and Rosenstiel have chosen to put a journalist’s first obligation at finding the truth, and only after that do they consider the practice of independence. Would my choice to forgo independence in pursuit of the truth be condoned by their journalistic elements code? It’s certainly something to consider – is there a chance that what I did could be viewed as only partially unethical, but necessary for the story? We have talked a lot in class about various situations in which journalists have been forced to, or have elected to enter the situations which they were covering (war zones, stopping a suspect, saving a life). But obviously what I did does not really seem to hold with those cases, and I could fall into the trap of a false ethical dilemma whereby I believe that I am weighing the ethical values of truth and objectivity, but am really weighing a more non-ethical value of trying to get the best scoop for my class assignment and objectivity.

One of the best ways to think about an ethical issue is to consider whether there are more than just two answers to any given problem (the highly sought after ‘third option’). Sure I could have just said no to Bob, or in my case I could have decided to play along until an escape came. But would there be a possible third solution that could have protected my relationship with the source and also kept myself removed from the story? I don’t hold that there necessarily is, apart from simply not agreeing to go on the canvass at all, which would have cost me several good soundbytes and minutes of b-roll. Perhaps I could have pawned off the clipboard to the photographer, since she was technically not a part of the reporting team or a student in that class, but that would have been unfair to her.

The biggest problem with my dilemma is that I really did not engage in a critical thinking process, after which I would most likely have come to the conclusion not to agree to canvass. When weighing the notion of getting a better scoop and being compassionate towards my source, with my duty-based adherence to objectivity and truthful reporting on behalf of my audience, it seems clear that the risks outweighed the benefits and the correct decision ethically should have been to be upfront with Bob, tell him I was a reporter and could not help him canvass anymore, and then deal with any repercussions that arose. I would like to think that if I had been straight with him about my position, he would still have been happy to let me film because generally activists love to get their message out to the public, but I cannot say for sure that would be the case.

In that moment I was not able to methodically think through my decision and simply went with a gut reaction. From this situation I have learned a great deal about myself as a reporter and real life ethical issues. It is a cautionary tale for the future to always think proactively and in-depth about how the decisions you make can affect the integrity of your reporting.

Furthering The Story: Calling Out Bias

In the wake of Election Day’s aftermath and the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States, many news organizations scrambled to push out information across all their platforms regarding the now president-elect of the U.S. and his vice presidential running mate. Twitter was positively alight with activity on election night and the subsequent day, as many reporters analyzed the results and how Trump secured such a dominant command of the electoral college vote. Other networks chose to in addition to that results coverage profile the victorious candidates.

One such organization was CBS News, who published a tweet on November 10 (2 days after the election) about Mike Pence. The tweet simply read “Before Mike Pence officially takes office, here are some things to know about the vice president-elect,” and then included a short 60 second video clip featuring images and textual facts about the Indiana Governor. The premise behind the clip was that it would provide readers with all the information they needed to know about their newly elected VP “…in under one minute.”

The clip started out innocuously enough, highlighting Pence’s political career thus far: elected governor of Indiana in 2013, served in the House for 12 years prior to that and unsuccessfully ran for House Minority Leader in 2006. But at the 0:22 mark the coverage started to take a not so subtle shift:

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The video proceeded to outline all the essentially anti-liberal (and in many cases anti-civil rights) acts Pence had done as governor: fighting against Medicare, No Child Left Behind, gays in the military, same-sex marriage and civil unions…

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The rest of the video continued on in that vein, detailing such moves as trying to defund Planned Parenthood, and passing the highly controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act which brought Indiana into national attention for its anti-gay allowances (i.e. denying a gay couple service in a restaurant establishment). The only other totally nonpartisan fact it provided was at the very end: that Pence had hosted his own radio show for a while.

I understand that with a time constraint of 60 seconds, it could prove hard to include all the salient facts of Pence’s long political career in video form. I also believe that CBS did not intentionally or maliciously try to depict Pence as a career politician incapable of doing much besides trying to tear down liberal initiatives (i.e. legalized gay marriage). But to me (and to many people who responded to the tweet) that was exactly how it came across, depicting Pence as a very negative figure solely obsessed with taking away minority rights. Even including the explainer phrase at the beginning “Mike Pence is a staunch conservative” doesn’t really help the situation at all. I don’t know very much about Pence, but I am sure that his entire career does not consist of only gay-bashing and immigrant-hating legislation.

Many Twitter users wasted no time in issuing criticisms for the obvious liberal bias of the video:

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Some of the comments were obviously pro-Trump, others not so much – but they could all unite over the fact that the video clearly did not do a very good job of balanced reporting. In hopes of getting an understanding as to why CBS would put out a video like this, I responded to the tweet:

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In this situation, it seems that in the pursuit of telling the truth about our controversial newly elected vice president, CBS neglected to remain objective (possibly they were still shell shocked about the results?). The video riled up both liberals and conservatives, which is as good an indication as any that it truly presented bias on the part of the network.

While I did not receive a response directly from CBS News (they did not respond to any of the Twitter comments), I noticed that by the time I posted this assignment my tweet had received 40 views and 13 engagements (people clicking on it to further view what I was tweeting about) which is heartening in a way because it shows that comments do make a difference if not to the reporters at least to the audience viewing this video.

However, determined to hopefully facilitate some sort of response, I went directly to the contact page for CBS News and was directed to an online form where I could submit comments and feedback:

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Here is what I wrote to them:

“My inquiry is in regards to a tweet which was posted to the CBS News Twitter account on Nov. 10. Here is the link to the tweet: https://twitter.com/CBSNews/status/796910444812337152
As you might see from the comments section of the tweet, a lot of viewers including myself appreciated the attempt to provide a concise, 60-second briefing on vice president-elect Mike Pence. Yet any reasonable viewer could also interpret the digital piece to appear slightly biased against Pence, and to have a slight liberal edge to it. I understand you may get hundreds of comments about your content, but I was hoping to simply gain some insight from the digital/social media producers involved with the production of this video as to what their line of thinking was in the making of this video and if they considered how this video would be received by both sides of the political spectrum.”

The confirmation page assured me that my comment would be read, but also warned that a “personal response” would not always be possible:

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This is not wholly surprising with a major news organization. I also sent an email voicing a similar request to their general email address provided online, evening@cbsnews.com. While I did not get a response from either avenues, I would hope that my comments might in the future influence how they go about producing digital content for their social media websites.

Thoughts on Professor Dan Kennedy’s in-class residency

During the few weeks of this semester that our class got to spend with Professor Kennedy, we were exposed to a multitude of different ethical discussions and dilemmas, not the least of which was the 2016 presidential election. We discussed such interesting topics as social media and Facebook’s controversial news feed algorithms, relationships with public relations representatives and what is considered on and off the record and the ethical considerations of native advertising/sponsored content. But I wanted to focus on one particular topic to start that we discussed one day in class which was that of what exactly is considered newsworthy and what deserves to be published by major news organizations, versus what is not considered fit for publication.

Professor Kennedy explained one particular case about a rather salacious article that the now defunct Gawker magazine had written about a sex tape celebrity wrestler Hulk Hogan had made with Heather Clem (wife of a man that Professor Kennedy assured us was truly called ‘Bubba the Love Sponge’ legally) that they had received. By publishing the sex tape, Hogan alleged that the publication had constituted a major invasion of privacy, and set about suing Gawker Media for damages. He eventually won the lawsuit, but it was not without the backing of billionaire co-founder of PayPal Peter Thiel, who already had a bone to pick as it were with Gawker for publicly outing him as gay in their publication back in 2007. We discussed as a class the following ethical considerations:

  • Did the public have a right to see Hogan’s sex tape, or did he have valid grounds to sue for invasion of privacy?
  • Was Peter Thiel’s backing of the Gawker suit ethical since he did have a contentious relationship with the publication already?
  • Was this story even really newsworthy, or a matter of public concern?

It raised a lot of interesting points, because we seemed to be divided as a class on the third question in particular of whether Hogan’s celebrity status made his sex tape a matter of public concern, or whether it really did not make a difference to the public. We were also conflicted about Thiel’s involvement in the suit – I was ready to condemn his financial backing as pure vengeance, but Professor Kennedy aptly pointed out that what if Thiel had been financing another cause which was significantly more noble than protecting a celebrity wrestler? Was it simply the topic of the suit, or the plaintiff, that caused the media to so readily condemn Thiel for simply paying off the judicial process? After all, Kennedy noted that Gawker was not a saint in this situation – they have printed some pretty scandalous and sometimes downright deplorable articles in the past, and many more people than just Thiel had a right to be angry with Nick Denton’s publication.

Another intriguing and very current topic that we discussed in class one day was the Huntington News’ article about a student who had recently filed a lawsuit against the college for mishandling her sexual assault case. We discussed in-depth particularly the paper’s decision to not print the name of the accused rapist, who is still currently a student at this school. I initially leaned more towards the notion that printing his name, which was a matter of public record in the court documents, would be ethically sound and would help provide some support to the victim who alleged that she had received no justice from BPD, Northeastern University, OSCCR or anyone else thus far. But as we talked more about it, many students made very valid points about the fact that this student had never been charged by the police, had never gone to court or been on trial, and we would simply be taking the victim’s testimony as sole proof that he was the attacker. The paper did reach out to him for comment, which he declined to do but did request that his name not be printed – and the victim too did not demand that the paper print his name. To have printed his name with no concrete police evidence to support that he was involved in the attack would ruin his reputation and most likely his professional life going forward, and what if it was later discovered that he had nothing to do with the attack? As one student pointed out, he was not even involved in the current lawsuit the victim was filing. Here clearly the journalistic principles of compassion and truthful reporting were in tension with each other, and we felt as a class that the paper’s decision to lean more towards compassion was correct. I would now say that I agree with the line of thinking that the paper embraced in choosing to keep him unnamed, especially in light of the recent Rolling Stone lawsuit, because as we have seen it can prove dangerous to rely solely on the victim’s account without fact checking with other sources (discipline of verification).

Northeastern University Election Post-Mortem brings up intriguing ethical issue

Today Northeastern University’s school of journalism held a post-mortem discussion of the 2016 presidential election, discussing Donald Trump’s unexpected assumption of the presidency as well as how the media helped contribute to his rise. Many different themes were discussed, including the extensive media coverage of every Trump and Clinton scandal, sexism against Clinton, lack of in-depth reporting and of course media bias. On that last point, Professor Dan Kennedy brought up an interesting issue which we have discussed before in our ethics class, about the notion of false equivalency.

The idea of false equivalency (false balance) is that the press, in an attempt to seem 100 percent fair and balanced, will attempt to equally report on every issue or in this case both candidates, to show that they have no bias towards either side. The problem with this method is that it causes journalists to give smaller or less important stories more weight just so they can provide equal coverage. Consider the endless media cycle that happened when Clinton stumbled and fainted at the 9/11 memorial in New York back in September. It was a simple stumble but the media was required to speculate for days on end about possible health issues, because they would do the same for a Trump scandal.

It diminishes the integrity of journalism to an extent by attributing a false sense of newsworthiness to a story which under normal circumstances the public would not typically deem as important. Whether this practice actually had a significant effect on the outcome of the election cannot be quantified, but it stands to reason that there was probably at least some influence involved. It was an ethical angle of this election that I had not even considered before, but it’s something I will certainly think deeply about in the days to come.

The Ten Commandments of Journalism

The Ten Commandments of Journalism

  1. When approaching any ethical concern or dilemma, above all else strive for these three qualities:
    • Truthfulness/Honesty – This should be your first practice when it comes to reporting. Without truth, you cannot be successful in this line of work.
    • Independence – You work for your readers/viewers first, so think of them first when making tough decisions. Your newspaper or station may pay your bills, but your audience benefits most from your work.
    • Compassion – There’s probably a good reason films and television so often depict reporters as slimy, fast-talking hounds dead set on getting the scoop before anyone else. Lack of empathy might be one of the biggest factors in the largely unfavorable view.
  2. Reporting is a privilege, not a right. Don’t do anything to compromise the integrity of that privilege (plagiarism, falsification, sensationalism).
  3. Never pay, or get paid (beyond your working salary) for your words. Sponsorships and paid content straddle the line between journalism and public relations. Make sure you stay firmly on one side of that line.
  4. Objectivity is an ideal but rarely a possibility. Be fair, be honest, be balanced to an appropriate extent but understand that total neutrality is not always a good thing.
  5. Whenever publicly representing your paper, website or program, make sure that you adhere to the standards you would in your work. For example, if you were to appear on a TV show or do a talk for a university, be as professional as you would in your reporting – don’t say anything you wouldn’t write. Understand that with press credentials comes great responsibility.
  6. Know the difference between on the record, off the record and deep background, and honor them. If a source wishes to be kept confidential, you should not disclose their identity to anyone except in certain extreme circumstances. Compromising such relationships can greatly harm your credibility moving forward.
  7. Strive for accountability in the subjects you cover, as well as your own organization. Be unafraid to go after corrupt politicians but equally unafraid to expose corruption within (suspect reporters, poor practices, editors bowing to advertising pressures).
  8. Engage with your audience when you can. Own up to mistakes and fix them, and try and recognize the comments your readers/viewers give. Perhaps consider providing a glimpse of your reporting process on social media to give the public an inside look.
  9. Trust your gut feeling. Of course, when faced with a massive problem you should absolutely make an informed and well thought out decision… but also listen to your instincts. More often than not, you’ll find they can align with your critical thinking assessment.
  10. Check, double check and triple check everything you publish. Remember grammar, spelling and AP Style guidelines. It’s the details that count and a polished product is what you should strive for as an accredited member of the press (because the internet will already have beaten you for speed regardless).

Ethical case study: Maria Henson and “To Have and To Harm”

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Maria Henson was a editorial writer for the Herald Leader of Kentucky in 1991 when she exposed a systemic failure of Lexington law enforcement and government to protect habitually abused wives from their husbands. As the articles present, these were women who had gone by the book in seeking out help from authorities, taking every single measure they could find to try and secure protection, to no avail. Police were often lackadaisical in their responses to domestic violence to the point where she said they put a search out for a husband carrying a crowbar with intent to kill his wife that carried roughly the same weight as neighbors playing loud music.

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Henson was faced with a difficult dilemma after interviewing the surviving abused wives which was whether to use their real names in her editorial articles. As my earlier post quoted from Henson at the event,

“I wondered, if I put these women’s names in the paper, am I putting them in danger?”

She said that at the time she suffered from nightmares of women being abused and killed, and wrestled with the issue through the sleepless nights. This was a time when in newsrooms across the country, reporters and editors were debating whether withholding names did more harm than good for victims of sexual assault. Yet in the end, she decided to include all the correct information and names and it had an immediate effect. Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, in 1992 every single legislation that Henson’s column recommended was passed in Kentucky’s legislature.

Continue reading “Ethical case study: Maria Henson and “To Have and To Harm””

Ethical issues real life reporters face

Earlier I had the opportunity to attend the 100th anniversary event for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, which featured speakers from a variety of journalistic and artistic pursuits. Many, if not all of them have come face to face with ethical and moral dilemmas in their work. It could be said that one does not become a Pulitzer Prize winner by playing it safe and avoiding conflicts. Indeed many of the reporters who spoke at the panels encountered a multitude of issues surrounding the topical aspects of their story, the characters they interviewed, and the best way to deliver the information to the public in a way that would keep those involved in the scandals safe, but also keep the significance and poignancy of the story intact so that it might bring about real change.

In particular, one reporter’s struggle with a story that encompassed a particularly painful subject resonated with me. Maria Henson was a editorial writer for the Herald Leader of Kentucky in 1991 when she exposed a systemic failure of Lexington law enforcement and government to protect habitually abused wives from their husbands. As Henson described in her talk, these were women who had gone by the book in seeking out help from authorities, taking every single measure they could find to try and secure protection, to no avail. Police were often lackadaisical in their responses to domestic violence to the point where Henson said they put a search out for a husband carrying a crowbar with intent to kill his wife that carried roughly the same weight as neighbors playing loud music.

The crimes she wrote about were horrible, vicious and heartbreaking and even more unthinkable was the sheer lack of empathy from the authorities supposedly entrusted with protecting these women. Henson posed a particularly difficult dilemma when she would interview the surviving abused wives which was whether to use their real names in her editorial articles. She said she was afraid that if she did include the names, those women could face serious if not life-threatening retaliation from their spouses for opening up to the press. As Henson explained,

“I wondered, if I put these women’s names in the paper, am I putting them in danger?”

She said that at the time she suffered from nightmares of women being abused and killed, and wrestled with the issue through the sleepless nights. In the end, she decided to include all the correct information and names and it had an immediate effect. Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, in 1992 every single legislation that Henson’s column recommended was passed in Kentucky’s legislature.

It appears that Henson’s rationale was that risk of harm to her sources by including their names would be overwhelmingly outweighed by the potential for real legislative and systematic change that could only happen if the stories were personal, gripping and raw. Simply saying “a woman who chose to remain off the record” wouldn’t carry the same meaning as an actual name. It was therefore Henson’s hope that the end would justify the means, and save lives. Her sources were at risk of course, but she also had to think about the entire female population of Lexington and their well-being. If she put one or two women at risk to save thousands of lives in the present and future, it would be the right choice and that is what I would also have to agree with. Sometimes the very sources we rely on as journalists can be put at risk just by talking to us. But it’s very important that we tell their stories in the press to as detailed an extent as we possibly can, because it is only through the power of the pen to invoke compassion and empathy that true change can be achieved in many of these scenarios.

I also consider the panel which included Boston Globe reporter and Sacha Pfeiffer and ex-reporter for the The Patriot News and current CNN correspondent Sara Ganim, both of whom broke incredibly important scandals that rocked two highly regarded institutions to their core.

Pfeiffer, who was part of the Globe Spotlight team which revealed the Boston Catholic Church sex abuse epidemic, and Ganim who exposed Jerry Sandusky of Penn State football as a serial child molester and covered his grand jury trial, both faced similar issues of how to treat their sources in the print stories. As Pfeiffer explained when talking to the victims of priest abuse,

“These are stories they had never told anyone before, even their spouses.”

Ganim expressed her experiences with talking to victims:

“[I have a] horrible feeling when I have to make one of those door knocks…you know you’re invading their life.”

She also explained how similar to Henson’s fears of retaliation, she too was very worried about the victims she quoted.

“There’s been a lot of backlash against the victims by fans…some of them were stalked…called liars.”

But inevitably even with the pain of reliving the horrors of their abuse in order to provide the Globe and Patriot News with the most accurate descriptions of these crimes, and with the risk it put the sources at, this full disclosure practice still ended up being the right choice as we saw both the worldwide Catholic church and the Penn State athletic program undergo serious reform, and many perpetrators of the crimes put behind bars by way of the witness testimonies.

In both cases, it seemed that these trailblazing, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters adopted a teleological approach to the problem, putting the ends above the means. They felt it was better to risk possible harm to their sources, in order to provide the best outcome. They also considered the ‘golden mean’ principle when they rationalized that it was better to put a few victims at risk for the greater good of all potentially involved by these abuse epidemics (i.e. two wives possibly getting retaliation < all wives in Kentucky being protected under the law).

As difficult of a situation as this is, and as painful of a decision as it can be to name sources in such matters, I would have to agree with Henson, Pfeiffer and Ganim in their decisions to put the greater good first. I would reason that we as reporters have a responsibility not only to our sources but to our entire readership, and the actual story itself as well. These three duties can easily clash as they did in the aforementioned cases, and when they do I think we have to try our best to keep truth as the highest held principle (not that using an unnamed source is necessarily ‘lying’). That might not always be the most comfortable or savory choice, but with any hope the power of the story you are writing can provide aid not only to your sources but so many other people in their same predicament.