(Dr. Brad Orvis, in a letter to the editor of the Decorah Newspapers, questioned decorahnews.com's "almost exclusive use of anonymous sources" in our stories about Winneshiek Medical Center). decorahnews.com's Paul Scott responds:
Actually, I think this is a legitimate question Dr. Orvis raises. For the most part, I'm reluctant to use anonymous sources in a news story. In the case of the news stories about Winneshiek Medical Center, we have interviewed 25-30 local health care experts so far. Those who are connected to the hospital have all said, "I'm willing to talk to you--but I'm afraid I'll get fired if you use my name." Those who have not been directly connected to the hospital have all said, "I'm willing to talk to you--but I'm afraid that if you use my name, the hospital will make things difficult for me."
Is their concern a legitimate concern? I don't know--I only know what they have told me--that they'd be happy to help me understand the local health care scene, but they were not willing to risk having their names published.
So how should you react to news stories that cite "unnamed sources?" I think you ought to approach them with a little bit of skepticism. Obviously, a news story in which a person puts their name on the line is a stronger statement. But the use of "unnamed sources" does NOT mean a news story is untrue or slanted.
I think the public measures every news story against the information it already knows about a topic. So our news stories about Winneshiek Medical Center get measured about what people have been told in private by current and former doctors and current and former staff members. That seems to me to be a fair way of judging our stories.
It also seems to me to be one of the ways topics wind up getting covered by the news media--that the public already has some information about a topic and starts asking for more information. The public was asking about health care in Winneshiek County long before decorahnews.com started posting news stories about the topic. The departure of a number of veteran doctors and staff members at the hospital has caused a lot of questions among the public, which didn't feel it was getting told the complete story. Our news coverage is a reflection of the public's concern--not the cause of it.