Like any reporter should, I cringe at anonymous sources. In many cases, I worry it's lazy journalism that allows people to take swipes at rivals with no consequences or manipulate a story in secret. Anonymous sources also make it hard for readers to judge someone's credibility and motivation for speaking to the media. It's up to the reporter to ask "why is this person really talking to me? Is there a reason that undermines the information they're offering?" In the race to be first with a good story, we may not always ask that enough. I've tried, in recent years, to avoid using anonymous sources, especially in political stories. In fact, when Shelly Glover was named Manitoba's federal minister, Bruce Owen and I made a little deal with each other to only quote people on the record for a short profile
we were assigned. (The result was kind of a boring story, unfortunately, which also illustrates why unnamed sources can be hard to resist.)
But what should reporters do when people who know the most about a complex and troubled system are barred from speaking publicly? That's the case with child welfare, a system always under scrutiny, again since the death of Tina Fontaine.
In the years since Phoenix Sinclair's murder, I've talked to probably two dozen child welfare workers - some for hours, some for a few minutes, some over and over, all off the record. I don't think I've ever quoted one by name. When they're hired, child welfare workers sign gag orders barring them from speaking about their work. They say they would face discipline or termination if they spoke to a reporter, and their union agrees. They often give me information I can use to question the province or child welfare agencies, but sometimes I resort to the familiar "sources said."
This blanket gag order protects the agencies, the authorities, the government and even First Nations chiefs who have some degree of control over child welfare services. I can't see how it protects children.
I can understand barring CFS workers from revealing private, deeply personal information about kids and families in care. In my experience, CFS staff are incredibly careful not to do that. I once had a long and detailed conversation with a social worker from a northern agency who referred in passing to a death review done on a child she'd had contact with. I asked her which child, figuring I'd recognize the name. She would not tell me anything - not the gender, age, where the kid lived, whether we'd written about him or her before. She got mad that I even asked.
Privacy, I get. What I don't get is why child welfare staff can't talk about the system - staffing levels, funding, programs, political interference, corruption
, their own safety. Given the problems
we've seen for a decade in child welfare, and the huge cost both in money and misery, there is a public interest in hearing from the people who know the system intimately and who might help us fix it.
Today, I did a story
quoting two anonymous support workers who staff group homes. They raised fears about the quality of service provided by Complete Care, a for-profit firm that backfills group homes. I got two more phone calls this morning from group home staff who echoed all the same fears, which assuaged some of my anxiety about building a story around nameless people. The value in reporting their detailed experiences, especially in light of mounting evidence about Tina Fontaine's last days, outweighed my qualms about quoting them anonymously. They had credible, valuable, interesting first-hand information we couldn't get quickly any other way.
By the same token, social workers often feel, quite legitimately
, that we pick on them, that they are blamed when things go wrong. Off-the-record conversations have been invaluable to me in mitigating some of that, in helping me understand the pressures, the case loads, the profound damage done to kids that no one worker can fix. On-the-record conversations with a face attached would help me explain that to the public.
If real people were allowed to come forward, it might spur the kind of change we need in child welfare. It might prompt public support for the cash to invest, for example, in skilled shelter workers who are paid a decent enough wage to stay for a while, instead of contracting kids out to a temp firm.
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09/30/2014 3:24 PM