What the press doesn’t want to tell you about Kaycee

Dan Bowman forwarded me a string of e-mail yesterday that raised a number of questions about the press. Apparently there is at least one reporter trying to find out how many people gave gifts to “Kaycee,” and that’s raising some concerns. Why? And why does the reporter want names and phone numbers? And how do you know if the guy’s legit or if he’s making some kind of sucker list?
Being a former reporter myself, Dan solicited my opinion. Maybe he figured a former reporter would recognize one of his own. And I do.

One concern was the reporter’s apparent use of a free e-mail address. This doesn’t cause me any great concern. Not all newspapers have a mail server because not every newspaper can afford to pay a mail administrator–or maybe they’re just not willing to justify keeping a full-time IT guy on hand who’d make more than the editor in chief. Plus there’s the portability issue–use a free, Web-based mail service, and you can read your mail from anywhere with Web access. No need to mess with VPNs or direct dialins or any of that nastiness.

Another concern is why does the reporter want a phone number. Practicality is one issue; a five-minute phone conversation can glean far more information than a mail conversation that takes all day. And the reporter probably wants to hear your voice; the sound of your voice tells a lot. The reporter can’t print that information, usually, but that gut feeling provides valuable guidance. Plus the reporter needs to verify that you really exist, which is something that anyone who had any contact with “Kaycee” will understand.

But if the reporter were any good, he’d be able to track you down, right? You bet he could. But that’s ruder than establishing contact via e-mail. You want the source to be as comfortable as possible. Plus it takes time to do that. In something like this, you’ll cast a wide net as painlessly as possible. If I were writing this story, my very first step would be to go to Weblogs.com, do a search on “Kaycee,” and when I find sites that mention her name a lot, I’d read the posts to get an idea of whether there was any relationship, and if I find any indication, e-mail that person. I may e-mail 100 people. But it only takes three sources to make a story.

Will the reporter honor your wishes, like not printing your full name, or your real name? Quite possibly. I know MSNBC’s Bob Sullivan knew Julie Fullbright’s identity. (Bob taught one of my journalism classes way back when, back when he was a grad student at the University of Missouri. I e-mailed him after his story hit the Web.) He didn’t publish her name–he said her identity couldn’t be confirmed at press time. A white lie? Kind of. But I know Bob didn’t knock on Julie’s door and confirm it. I don’t know whether he called her on the phone and asked if the pictures were her yet still chose to say her identity was unconfirmed. Bob said he wanted to protect her privacy, and knowing Bob, I take him at his word on that. If this was going to turn into a three-ring circus in the press, Bob didn’t want to be the ringmaster. Once her identity became common knowledge, you started seeing her mentioned by name in the news too, and not just on the Weblogging sites.

Chances are very good that the reporter(s) will talk to dozens of people and probably run the best quotes he gets from some of them. For example, I found a nugget in one of Dan Bowman’s messages: “Shelley would really like to know who ate her cookies.” Yes, on one level that’s funny. But baking cookies for someone is a fairly universal act of love, and just about all of us–even baking-challenged superbachelors–can understand the feeling of betrayal when you bake up a batch of cookies and send them to someone, then find out they never got to that person. And if that person didn’t exist at all, it hurts even more.

If you feel like you should give the reporter a piece of information but don’t want to be quoted, use the phrase “off the record.” Most reporters honor that. If you can give them someone else who’ll corroborate what you say, the reporter is even more likely to honor it. Even if that someone else wants to remain anonymous, once three people say something, a reporter can pretty much count it as fact. And since there is some danger of retribution, a reporter will honor that. Most reporters have a soft spot in their hearts for people in danger.

I know you’re nervous about talking about this with a reporter, because I was a crime reporter. Being taken for money is one thing. People don’t like to talk about that because they don’t like to think of themselves as suckers. I know that. Any reporter you’re likely to talk to knows that. But being taken for love is entirely different. People are far less likely to talk about that. Any reporter you’re likely to talk to knows that too. All too well. He or she isn’t likely to do anything to hack you off when good sources are hard to find.

Why is the press taking this angle? Well, the root word of the word “news” is “new.” This is a very old story by news standards. This is the only angle left to take, and the national media has probably stopped caring. If it turns out that more than $1,000,000 worth of gifts were sent to Kaycee, then it’ll become a national story again. If a few hundred people sent postcards and cookies and trinkets, I doubt you’ll hear about it anywhere but in Kansas and Oklahoma newspapers. But in rural Kansas and Oklahoma, anything new that comes about in this case is news.

Why can’t the reporter just read your Weblog? There’s a decent chance s/he already has. But the reporter will want to know how you feel about this now. (That “new” thing again.) And no one wants to print exactly the same quote some other paper did. If you interview the person yourself, your chances of having verbatim quotes lessen.

Is the reporter in cahoots with the FBI or local law enforcement agencies? Probably not. That would be a conflict of interest. It crosses the boundary between reporting news and creating news.

And how can you tell if a reporter is legit? Do a Web search on the reporter’s name. Chances are it’ll show up somewhere. I did a Google search on the reporter’s name in this case, and the first hit had his name, his employer’s name, his editor’s name, and his newspaper’s phone number. If worse came to worse, I could call that number and ask for him. If he’s not there, you can ask whoever answers the phone if the reporter is working on a story along those lines. There’s no guarantee that person will know, but reporters do talk to one another, and future stories do come up in newsroom meetings.

Hopefully that helps people see this thing from a reporter’s perspective. And I suspect that’s probably the last I’ll talk about Kaycee here–the story seems to be losing momentum and people seem to be moving on. And that’s a good thing.

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