Fact checking anonymous sources: 5 good questions with Ken Williams of San Diego Gay & Lesbian News

FCP logoThe San Diego businessman was looking for funding for his tech startup – not particularly unusual in California. But when A. Latham Staples began dropping names of alleged investors like Mark Zuckerberg and Carlos Slim, it raised red flags for journalists at the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

A subsequent investigation by the news organization unearthed some concerned employees, angry shareholders and a pile of missing money. “Whistleblowers” accused Staples, CEO of Positive Mobile Health, of faking meetings, lying about investors and partnerships, and misusing funds – all in an effort to raise capital for his startup.

Ken Williams

Ken Williams

Ken Williams, a longtime mainstream journalist who has been editor-in-chief of SDGLN since 2010, took at least two unusual steps in the publication of the investigation. First, the story contained several unnamed sources – not a typical practice for the staff. And it contained a behind-the-scenes explanation to readers about the intense fact-checking and editorial decisions made during the reporting and editing process.

We asked Williams some questions about how the fact-checking and editing were handled for this potentially volatile story.

Let’s start with ground zero in good fact-checking: good reporting. This story involved allegations that required intense investigation and verification. Your publication relies on freelance writers. How was the reporter selected to write this article?

Roman Jimenez, the reporter, studied journalism in college. He was the editor of Update, an LGBT publication in San Diego, which folded several years ago. He is also a longtime contributor to San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, which is an online news source that publishes live Monday through Friday and reaches a global audience.

Because I have worked closely with Roman since 2010, I have learned to trust his abilities as a reporter and willingness to take direction. Over the years, he has written several high-profile, sensitive stories for us that have gotten national attention.

The reporter pitched the story to me more than nine months ago when the scope of the investigation was initially focused more narrowly on vendors, which were doing work for the start-up company but were not being paid. This was a familiar pattern with this individual, which SDGLN had documented in previous stories, including one in which musical acts, food providers and other vendors didn’t get paid for a major festival he staged in Los Angeles. He also did not pay his employees, and we reported on one key employee who sued him and won a judgment.

In this case, Roman’s initial investigation began to reveal a much larger story than we had expected, and I gave him all the time he needed to bring the story to life.

In the article, readers were assured that rigorous fact-checking went into the reporting of the story and that any information that couldn’t be thoroughly verified wasn’t published. Why do you believe the explanation to readers was important in this story?  

We have never gone to this extreme to inform readers, but felt the need to explain how intense this investigation was and to detail the rigorous standards we applied.

Because of the seriousness of the allegations, which include investor fraud, we had to make sure that we could confirm, reconfirm and in some cases triple confirm our information. From day one, the reporter documented massive amounts of information and shared with his editor all of his sources and the documentation he received. We discarded details that could not be confirmed by secondary sources. And because the subject was making outrageous claims of connections to prominent billionaires who were allegedly going to invest in the start-up company, the reporter faced the herculean task of disproving those claims.

Thus, it was absolutely necessary that readers understand how thoroughly we vetted our investigative report.

What specific steps were involved in your fact-checking process for this story, and how was it different than your average daily story?

Fact-checking for an average daily story involves basic journalism, but doing so for an investigative story is a much more involved procedure.

…it was absolutely necessary that readers understand how thoroughly we vetted our investigative report.

Because of the sensitivity of the story, many sources had to be protected for myriad reasons, some out of fear of retribution, some because they still held out hopes that their investments might pay off, some because of shame that they fell victim to an elaborate con job, and some because they were job hunting and didn’t want to jeopardize their chances at finding work because they would be identified as whistleblowers. Others were only too happy to go on record, hoping that justice will eventually be served.

But because we had to protect some of our sources, thus not using their names, we felt it was crucial for us to add the disclaimers. Rest assured, I know who these people are by name.

The reporter conducted an exhaustive investigation and did so methodically, documenting every quote with emails with interview subjects as well as combing through hundreds of pages of legal documents, financial records, bank statements and other documents obtained through public records requests. The reporter and I both felt that any uploading of documents or emails would need to be severely redacted if published, and in some cases would violate the confidentiality of sources.

The reporter provided me with a copy of every email exchange and every document he utilized so that I was able to follow his process and progress along the way to our final report. The editing process itself took several weeks and the report was not published until both reporter and editor had signed off on the final product. We do not have a lawyer on staff, but one on retainer. In this case, we did not pay for legal services, but we did consult with people in the legal and law professions as part of our research process.

I am very confident in how we approached this story. We left no stone unturned, and held this story for weeks until we dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” so that we had every voice represented.

What has been the aftermath of this story? And have you had any corrections or clarifications?

We made one tiny correction to the story after the reporter realized within the first hour of publication that he got a first name incorrect. He used a similar-sounding name incorrectly, and I fixed the story immediately online.

I also turned one long sentence into two sentences after an arts group commented on our Facebook page that a money reference might be confused. The sentence was correct, and the money reference was accurate, but out of the greatest abundance of caution I turned that sentence into two sentences so that it was absolutely certain that the money reference was to the company in question, not the arts organization.

Neither situation requires reader notification, according to our publishing policy. If a correction or clarification changes the meaning of a story, then an explanation is due readers. In both cases aforementioned, a slight tweak is appropriate.

It’s too soon to say what the aftermath of the story will be. The explosive allegations made by the whistleblowers deserve to be explored by the authorities. 

You just have to have the instincts and curiosity to question things that don’t quite seem to be what they appear.

In the first three days since the investigative report was published, it has been the most-read story on our website every day with no signs of slowing down as people share it on social media.

The comments to the story, posted on our Facebook account, show an overwhelmingly positive response to our coverage. One of the commenters described herself as a victim of the scheme, and said it was a “very well written article that is nothing but the truth!” Others thanked us for exposing the elaborate scam.

Any final tips for reporters who need to dig into a complicated story like this?

My advice on investigating a story like this is to follow all leads, no matter how minor or major. You may start with one angle, and the more you look into a subject you may find a much bigger picture. Roman began hearing from sources that vendors were not getting paid, so I gave him the green light to investigate. 

But the more questions he asked, the bigger the story became as one whistleblower after another came forth to make spectacular allegations of investor fraud. … You just have to have the instincts and curiosity to question things that don’t quite seem to be what they appear.

 

Is your media organization setting up a fact-checking program? Contact us for guidelines, training and resources. 

 

 

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