Relying on unnamed sources can come back to bite you when it turns out your sources were simply wrong.
And the ripple effects of factual errors based on anonymous sources can have real-world consequences for the subject of the mistake, as deputy prosecuting attorney Janice Futa found out this week.
Futa, who had been widely reported to be implicated in the unfolding federal corruption case surrounding the Honolulu Police Department and prosecutor’s office, is now having to explain to a judge that there’s no reason to disqualify her from a totally unrelated criminal case in which she is the prosecutor.
Since December, Hawaii News Now has been reporting that Futa along with deputy prosecutor Chasid Sapolu have received so-called subject letters from the U.S. Justice Department — essentially notifying them that they were somehow implicated in the federal investigation.
The television news outlet had itself a major scoop — the probe, which for years had been largely focused on former police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, former deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, had now reached deeper into the Honolulu prosecutor’s office. Hawaii News Now soon followed that up with an even bigger story, that the elected prosecutor himself — Keith Kaneshiro — had been sent a target letter by federal investigators.
All this according to anonymous sources, of course.
The stories, which played out for months, often were accompanied by a large on-air graphic with photos of Kaneshiro, Sapolu and Futa, among other suspects in the probe.
Sapolu fairly quickly acknowledged that he had indeed received a subject letter and announced he was stepping aside until the case was resolved.
In that same Feb. 12 press conference, attorney Bill McCorriston also revealed that Futa had never gotten any sort of letter. He chastised reporters in the room for continuing to report that error.
The consequences of that mistake are coming home to roost. This week, defense attorneys in an unrelated case moved to have Futa disqualified as the prosecutor in their case because she was the subject of a federal investigation. As evidence, the attorneys submitted copies of Hawaii News Now and Honolulu-Star Advertiser stories naming Futa.
“The (deputy prosecuting attorney) received neither a ‘subject letter’ nor a ‘target letter’ relating to any federal investigation,” Futa wrote in a court filing opposing her removal from the case.
Deputy Prosecutor Janice Futa
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
“Apparently, the entire underlying basis of this motion are ‘media accounts’ and ‘other news’ which have reported that the DPA received a ‘subject letter’ from federal investigators. Had defendants, through their attorneys, done even a cursory investigation into this matter, they would have learned the truth and would know that the allegations against the DPA contained in the motion are spurious, injurious, and totally without merit,” Futa’s memorandum in opposition says.
A hearing had been scheduled for Monday. But it appears the attorneys have since withdrawn their motion.
But here’s the thing. Jan Futa could have and should have spoken up back in December and told Hawaii News Now and the Star-Advertiser they were wrong.
Civil Beat never reported that Futa had been given a letter by the feds. We have our own unnamed sources who told us this was simply not true so we steered clear of that assertion.
We did, however, try on numerous occasions to get Futa to respond to our inquiries about the letter. She never replied to us.
After McCorriston declared in February that she had not received the letter we tried again several times. Nothing.
She also declined to speak with me for this story, via the office spokesman, Brooks Baehr.
He also sent this statement:
“We are disappointed a deputy prosecutor has had her reputation tarnished by flawed reporting. We hope jury pools are not polluted and cases jeopardized because of the many erroneous reports about Deputy Prosecutor Jan Futa by Hawaii News Now, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and others. Inaccurate news, malicious or otherwise, undermines the public’s confidence in the media and causes real damage to those wrongly implicated.”
Mistakes happen in our business, and it would seem now that Hawaii News Now made a mistake that was exacerbated by being repeated in the Star-Advertiser. Despite McCorriston’s assertion that Futa did not receive a letter, neither news outlet has published a correction.
Civil Beat also picked up the Hawaii News Now story on Kaneshiro, but not of Futa.
Hawaii News Now has replaced Futa’s mug shot in its on-air graphic with a picture of Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, who also received a target letter from federal investigators.
Star-Advertiser Managing Editor Marsha McFadden didn’t return a voice message explaining what I wanted to chat with her about for this story.
But Hawaii News Now news director Scott Humber did.
First of all, he says, HNN reporters had multiple sources telling them Futa, along with Sapolu and Kaneshiro, had received letters.
And until Futa or some other official source tells them otherwise, they are sticking with their sources who have a reliable track record of being right.
“We have asked them to set the record straight and they have never answered,” he says. “They’ve had every opportunity to contact me or Lynn (Kawano) or Daryl (Huff) and we have asked multiple times.”
Thus, he argues, until they hear it from Futa or the prosecutor’s office, it wouldn’t make sense to publish a correction. “We’re standing by what we’ve reported all along.”
I have to say I do understand his position on this. There is absolutely no reason for Futa to have stayed silent. She should have corrected the misinformation right away.
To this day, Kaneshiro also has never spoken to the public — the people who put him in the office — about his situation.
But journalists are often too quick to try to be first with a story based on anonymous sources. That has become a staple of Hawaii News Now’s reporting in the Kealoha case where investigative reporter Lynn Kawano is often the first to report developments, often based on unnamed sources.
Civil Beat rarely relies on unnamed sources and when we do, we give as much detail as we can about who is providing the information — lawmakers, police, parents, agency officials, for instance — to give readers some context. And we always explain why we agreed to let someone speak anonymously.
Public trust in the media is not good these days. We need to stick to the highest journalistic standards and ethics if we’re going to regain that trust. The everyday use of anonymous sources is not the way to do that. Even if it means losing out on a big scoop.
Stay Up To Date On The Coronavirus And Other Hawaii Issues
Before you go
Civil Beat readership has more than doubled in the past nine months. That’s incredible growth for which we’re so grateful.
But for a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall, readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism. The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters.
To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at email@example.com or call her at 808-377-0561.