Hawaii News Now boasts about its “reputation” for protecting confidentiality by using anonymous sources, including in recent stories about an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle stolen from a police car as well as speculation about where President Donald Trump will stay in Hawaii next month.

Use of anonymous sources definitely has its place in journalism. But anonymity should be reserved for only the most special cases because it keeps viewers and readers from knowing where information originated, which can be critical context for understanding it.

In the stolen rifle story, for example, a public police report should have been filed about the incident, which would provide much more detail about what happened and why. So why not just get the report and publish then? The story would be much better (and more interesting). Follow-up questions could be asked. If the report isn’t filed, well, that’s an even bigger story.

As for idle speculation about where Trump will stay during his short visit, is that information really compelling enough to warrant anonymity? I’m sure many people could postulate just as freely on this topic without the identity cover.

Freely providing veils to sources lifts the burden of responsibility on them to be right, fully truthful and transparent about their motivations. It doesn’t benefit the rest of us.

Attempts to reach HNN’s news director, Scott Humber, to discuss the organization’s use of anonymous sources, were unsuccessful.

While journalists and news organizations might gather glory in the short term by being first or fastest, cloaking sources willy-nilly has a corruptive effect long-term on our community and its information ecology as fewer and fewer people feel like they should have to put their names on their words, making local journalism less reliable and less credible.

Let’s deconstruct and analyze, for example, the recent Lynn Kawano scoop about the multiple legal investigations underway of David Chang, a former head of the Hawaii Republican Party. As the report documents, Chang has bona fides in politics, education (a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point) and religious morality (attended seminary). He also allegedly has been running a pyramid scheme and bilking local investors.

Chang’s prominence in the community combined with the allegations of wrongdoing means a story could be there. But was it ready for airing?

Kawano reported that “multiple federal agencies and state regulators have built cases” around Chang’s businesses, including his investment firm, “Wealthbridge,” and that “law enforcement sources say, over the past two years, the FBI and investigators with Homeland Security and the State Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs have investigated Chang after complaints that he misled clients by guaranteeing high returns.”

When contacted, Chang acknowledged “an inquiry” was taking place. But, as Kawano noted, he also has not been arrested or charged with a crime. So why publish now?

As the highlight of the broadcast piece, Kawano used a silhouetted source — a guy in a baseball hat — to make a claim that Chang owed this source $250,000 and “cheated” him out of his “life savings.” Kawano, and her HNN colleagues, also claimed Chang misled clients by “guaranteeing” high returns on investments, a “case is building” and, most ominously, that Chang is soliciting for more investors.

Strangely, Kawano also included a second silhouetted source — another guy in a baseball hat — whom she described as “with knowledge of the investigations,” articulating some of the general legal claims against Chang. What does this label, to have “knowledge of the investigations,” mean? Who knows?

Meanwhile, Kawano noted that “lawsuits” had been filed against Chang, including one she showed as a document and discussed, with a redacted plaintiff. This was a perfect opportunity for Kawano to finally give her viewers the name of a specific person making specific allegations against Chang, but even then, she pulled back and cloaked the accuser.

The oddity here is that Chang certainly must know who these people are, since one of them sued him and the other had a very specific story about their interactions. They are accusing him of serious malpractice. So why shouldn’t they step from the shadows?

The identity of the plaintiff in the lawsuit, at least, is a public record, so anyone who wants to know who she is could look it up. Any other “lawsuits” also would be public records, with detailed information available, including names. Foundations of our legal system (and our journalistic ideology) include being able to face your accuser and the presumption of innocence.

Which all leads to the bigger question of just who is this anonymity practice at HNN really protecting?

The choice to conceal actually hides the lack of journalistic ripening of the story as much as anything else. Like a bunch of green bananas, the claims here might be fabulous in the future, but right now, they just aren’t quite ready for public ingestion.

HNN, as a matter of policy and as part of its online request for tips, states it “will protect your identity, unless you wish to appear on camera for an interview.” It also provides a place on that submission form for sources to explain why anonymity is important (and requested) and a check box to decline telling this story “on camera.”

While this comforting approach makes news media — especially broadcast media with its imposing cameras — more approachable, I suppose, it also creates the potential for favor-swapping, sneakiness and hidden agendas.

As one of the largest news organizations in Hawaii, HNN has the power to shape our media environment in many ways. It can be known as a place for anonymous muckraking. Or it can be seen as something greater, crowing instead about getting that critical news of the day on the record, from sources viewers can see, hear and trust.

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About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.