A journalist’s duty
While reporting for the new angle of snow plow collusion, many of the sources told Ross stories about damage done to their property and personal threats they received for simply underbidding on a contract they were not meant to win. Some people she interviewed did not ask to be off the record. Part of this Ross attributed to not being used to the media or not thinking that there is an option of being off the record or quoted on background.
Watch: Ross talks about the early stages of the idea of sources being on or off the record.
There were also a few who did not care about being off the record, Ross says. Some of the people she talked to said things that were very extreme, but the idea of collusion was so entrenched in the snow plow industry, and perceived as normal, that the interviewees did not think about the legality of what was happening or the potential consequences of talking about it. The comments about collusion and bid-rigging were mentioned off-hand and didn’t seem like a big deal to the sources, but Ross was worried that if she were to attribute any quotes, these people could find themselves physically injured by the mafia, potentially fatally.
On the other hand, journalists strive to name sources as to maintain a higher degree of credibility and make stories verifiable by an independent third party. So Ross had to make a decision before she even started to write. She could write the investigative report quoting all the sources who did not specifically ask to be off the record, using the information from anonymous sources as background; she could write a story using a mixture of sources both with and without attribution, as per the requests from each individual interviewee; or she could write a story keeping every name anonymous, thereby ensuring the safety of everyone whom she spoke with in reporting the story.
Ross says she and Nelles did talk about how the possibility of writing a story with all anonymous sources, how it could be written and whether it was even worthwhile to do that way. She also generally has a policy for herself of not using any unnamed sources, but she says this was a different situation.
Watch: Ross asks “Would I print their name, even if they didn’t tell me not to?”
“That was definitely something that came up in the first conversation [Drew Nelles and I] had. […] I think it was understood from the early stages that this was a going to be a question we would have to deal with.” – Selena Ross
The editor’s choice
Drew Nelles and Ross discussed the pitch over the phone in January 2011, but it was in March – the same month in which Nelles was formally introduced as Maisonneuve’s new editor-in-chief – when the two first met in person to discuss the details surrounding the story and the issue of anonymity.
From his point-of-view, using anonymous sources could allow the story to be written in more general terms, which could serve a purpose as the collusion and bid-rigging is so pervasive in Montreal, not only in the snow removal industry but much of the city’s public contracting.
As far as broader uses of anonymity, Nelles says the rules are constantly shifting and should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. In this case, he wondered if naming some industry sources while granting anonymity to those who asked might seem inconsistent for readership.