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Launched in 2014 by journalist Sean Baker, Med City Beat is an independent news source covering government, business and culture in Rochester, Minnesota.

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Media's decision to publish anonymous email raises ethical questions

Below is our statement on the anonymous email sent to the media regarding allegations against the former head of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce. It was first published to Facebook.

Over the weekend, an anonymous letter was emailed to members of the media, including the Med City Beat, with allegations against former chamber president Rob Miller. Two local news outlets chose to cover the contents of the letter. We were not one of them. Doing so would run against standard journalistic practice and violate our trust with you, the reader.

Of course, there are times when anonymous sources are necessary for gathering information. I.e. in cases of whistleblowers standing up to government corruption or unethical business practices. But they should be used rarely, and only when there are no other means for bringing an important story to light. The sources should also be vetted by journalists and editors to ensure the individual is a credible source on the topic.

Many news agencies, from the Associated Press to NPR, have policies outlining their practices for using unnamed sources. They make it clear that anonymous sources should only be used when the individual has been determined to be a reliable source.

In the case of this letter, we have no way of verifying who the source is or whether the contents of the email — which contains damaging allegations — are accurate. It was signed by “Rochester Doe” and sent from a Gmail account by the same name. All we know is who the individual purports to be — not who they really are or what their motives may be.

(We reached out to the writer, but did not hear back.)

To be clear, we are not defending the actions of Mr. Miller or the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce. We have reported extensively on recent developments involving the organization and will continue to provide updates on the investigation that is now under way. We are also in no way suggesting the allegations outlined in the anonymous letter are false, or that the writer was acting maliciously.

Our only goal is to be transparent in our decision-making process — and to maintain the trust the public has put in us.

Respectfully,
Sean Baker
Med City Beat


Other perspectives

We reached out to Jane Kirtley, Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, to get her view on the issue.

After reviewing the details of the case, Kirtley told us she had concerns about "news organizations publishing an anonymous email making defamatory allegations about someone without making some effort to determine who the writer is."

She outlined some of the ethical issues of media outlets publishing anonymous allegations without vetting the source beforehand. At least one Rochester radio station published the letter in entirety without verifying who the author was.

"I understand the idea that many, if not all, media outlets received it," said Kirtley. "In this competitive environment, it is tempting to publish. I also understand that 'Rochester Doe' has raised the issue of a cover up or 'whitewash,' and that news media might not want to be seen as complicit in that."

"Nevertheless," she said, "I think that when defamatory factual allegations are made, news organizations do have an ethical responsibility to at least make an attempt to vet the speaker before repeating them."

We also reached out to the Post-Bulletin to learn their reasoning for reporting on the email allegations. The P-B published some of the excerpts — in context — brought up in the letter. 

Jeff Pieters, the paper's lifestyle editor, offered us this explanation:

"The news regarding Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce leadership has been an important news topic of considerable public interest that we have been following closely for more than a week. We received the anonymous letter Saturday and followed up with questions to the chamber. Soon after, a chamber spokesman responded, telling us the letter was immediately forwarded to the outside investigator and that the chamber 'has taken these allegations seriously.' Our concerns over the anonymity of the letter were mitigated by the serious manner in which the chamber received it." 

According to the paper, it made an effort to reach out to the individual behind the email — but was unsuccessful. 

Pieters added: "We limited our direct reporting of the contents of the letter to allegations that had previously been made by named sources; and to commentary on the Rochester business climate vis a vis women, and fears of a “whitewashed” investigation. We find these comments to be newsworthy.

The Post Bulletin does not make a general practice of relying on anonymous sources. In fact, it is exceedingly rare. Our attempts to learn the identity of the letter-writer are described in today’s article."

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