Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in “Behind The Story,” a regular series written by our reporters and editors to help readers understand the decisions we make every day in reporting the news. It’s just one element of our new media literacy initiative, “Understanding The News,” that brings you inside Civil Beat and the news business.
This was a weird one.
On Friday, Hawaii’s infamous “Button Pusher” (or, more accurately, “mouse clicker”) sat down with Civil Beat to give his side of the story about how the false ballistic missile alert was mistakenly sent out earlier this month. Our interview was just one of several one-on-one interviews he gave that day to local and national media at his attorney’s office in downtown Honolulu.
But there was a catch: The Button Pusher didn’t want anyone to know who he was.
The attorney, Michael Green, introduced his client yet declined to divulge his identity — even off-the-record. Later, the man said he didn’t want to identify himself because he’d like to continue working in Hawaii and because he’s received death threats.
“I’m concerned for my safety and the safety of my family,” the Button Pusher told Civil Beat.
But that’s not how it usually works in our business. An anonymous source is not supposed to be unknown to us — and for good reason. We need to know who the source is so we can verify their legitimacy and that the information they are giving us is reliable. In most cases we have had substantial contact with the person requesting anonymity.
Choosing to use anonymous sources in a story can be a tough judgment call in any newsroom, and the issue comes up a lot. In the course of reporting, sources often request anonymity for reasons that are far less compelling. The decision to protect a source is made carefully and only after it’s clear that the information they are sharing is important for the public to know and that the only way to report that information is to agree to anonymity.
Reporters and editors have to weigh the downside of using those unnamed sources against the public benefit they provide. Civil Beat has a pretty strict policy on anonymous sources. We grant anonymity only in rare cases.
In this case, we decided it was important that people hear the Button Pusher’s side of the story. He gave the public a glimpse into what he was thinking when he sent out the alert, what factors went into his decision and how he’s been coping with the aftermath.
His version of events differed from what state officials have said. He insisted that he had followed his training and that much of what happened that morning was beyond his control.
That’s the kind of information that the public needs in order to evaluate the state’s management of the emergency warning system and its investigation into the false alert.
Still, we came away from the interview in Green’s office with some serious journalistic concerns.
We already had a pretty good idea who he was, even his name. But we wanted to confirm that the stranger in Michael Green’s office was a state warning officer who was involved in the false missile alert.
After the missile scare on Jan. 13, we did a lot of reporting to find out who was involved. We’d combed through public records and had narrowed the Button Pusher down to two possible candidates. We’d researched the internet and social media sites for history on those individuals. We’d found photos. We talked to our own reliable sources.
The man we met Friday appeared to match one of the two individuals whose images we’d found.
In the end, in this backwards way, we identified the Button Pusher. We know his name, but we ultimately decided not to publish it because he agreed to talk with us only anonymously. We also think the death threats he’s been getting are, unfortunately, a real thing.