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From AJR,   July/August 1999  issue

Caught in the Middle   

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

"What am I supposed to do?" asked the Akron Beacon Journal's Robert Hoiles. "Am I supposed to go back on my word?"

Hoiles, then the paper's main police reporter, had accepted information from the Akron police chief about domestic violence allegations against the chief--under the condition of confidentiality. A condition, Hoiles was quoted as saying in a May 4 Beacon Journal story, he "did not betray," though he did attempt to follow up on the information he received last October in other ways.

Beacon Journal editors say Hoiles should have told his immediate supervisor. As a result of his silence, top editors decided to move the reporter, a 26-year Beacon Journal staffer, off his beat. He's now covering federal courts and neighborhoods. Hoiles declined comment for this story.

The editors' decision, and particularly the May 4 story detailing Hoiles' actions, caused some staffers to feel he had been treated unfairly, and it prompted newsroom discussions on how reporters should handle confidentiality.

The main message Editor Jan Leach would like to impart to her staff is, "Don't accept confidential information ahead of time" without knowing what it pertains to.

Steve Geimann, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists' Ethics Committee, adds another guideline. "Always question sources' motives before promising anonymity," he says, is part of SPJ's code of ethics.

Hoiles' supervisor, Mizell Stewart III, assistant managing editor for local news, says he understands it's sometimes difficult to find out the nature of comments beforehand or to refuse to grant confidentiality. It's what Hoiles did--or didn't do--with the information that bothers him.

Stewart became aware of Hoiles' talk with the chief when an anonymous source told another reporter about it in December. The editor says he should have been informed promptly. "I understand he felt trapped, and I sympathize with that," Stewart says. "But I don't think he would've felt as trapped had he shared that information." Stewart says he would have used other methods and sources to get that information into the paper.

It's automatic, Geimann says, that the confidentiality agreement would extend to the editor. "The courts may disagree," he says, "but as a reporter, I do have an obligation to inform my editor about what I'm working on."

"Experience and judgment should be the guide" in these situations, Leach says. As for the episode between Hoiles and the police chief, she adds, "The main person on your beat--that one's very troubling."