Special Reports

March 25, 2002

JUDY SLY: A missing woman and a media circus

(Published: Saturday, May 19, 2001)

A dramatic story unfolded this week as Robert and Susan Levy desperately appealed for information about their missing daughter.

Chandra Levy, who no longer needs an introduction, hasn't been heard from since May 1.

The reason that ABC, Fox News, the Associated Press, the New York Daily News and other major league media are paying attention has little to do with the missing 24-year-old.

Rather, they care because Chandra was an intern and a "good friend" of a Washington politician, our own congressman Gary Condit. (Gosh, an intern and a politician, where have we heard that before?)

This has been a particularly challenging story for us here at The Bee.

Chandra Levy grew up in Modesto; her parents still live here. She even worked at The Bee for a spell, as a newsroom assistant in our sports department. We knew her as a bright and outgoing young woman, with ambition and a headful of dark thick hair.

This is a story that Modestans relate to; it gets high priority in the hometown paper.

This missing person case also confronts a community that suffered a tragedy associated with missing women. I'm speaking, of course, of the three Yosemite sightseers, who were missing for a month before their bodies were found.

The Sund-Carrington Foundation, founded in the wake of the sightseers' deaths, has coordinated the effort to keep Levy's face in front of the cameras.

The final challenge for us comes with watching our colleagues in the press, who are preoccupied with Condit's relationship with Levy, whatever it may be.

This week, we saw some ugly examples of innuendo and mediocre sourcing, enough that it is important to explain how we have approached our coverage.

First, the photo. Jennifer Baker, a friend of Levy's, loaned us a photo taken at Condit's office. Levy and Baker visited the office in their rounds of congressional offices as D.C. interns from the University of Southern California. It is clearly a posed picture.

Baker loaned it to us with the understanding that we would not crop -- or cut -- her out, creating an image that could be interpreted very differently.

A number of newspapers and TV stations have done just that, leaving a photo of just Condit and Levy that can be misleading.

People on Condit's staff are angry about that, and with justification. Reality was distorted.

Newspapers crop photos all the time, but they are supposed to do it to eliminate unimportant elements, not to change the truth of the photo.

Second, media have been relying on the use of unnamed people, what we refer to as anonymous sources.

In our coverage, we have relied on our anonymous source policy, in place since February 1999.

The key elements:

Anonymous sources are discouraged and hurt our credibility.

We only use anonymous sources if the information is critical to the story, if the anonymous source is the only source available and in a position to know the facts. Further, we make every effort to confirm the information through other people or documents.

The Levy-Condit story shows how media can run amok with anonymous sources. One reporter cites an anonymous source, then another quotes that source as accurate.

Then someone attributes the information to "published sources." Soon a rumor grows in size and gains an the appearance of authenticity, even if the information is hanging on just one or two people.

We have relied on just one anonymous source in our reporting so far and this person meets the criteria above. In fact, this source simply shared with us an e-mail sent by Chandra.

We have been inundated with calls from other media. Our reporters have been invited to appear on talk shows, as if they are somehow experts.

Our decision: We talk to no one and we share no photos, other than those shared because we are members of The Associated Press.

We don't know what the outcome of this story will be. For the sake of the Levy family and her many friends in our midst, we hope Chandra will turn up safe, and soon.

As this story continues to unfold, we promise you this: We will use anonymous sources only if and when we are confident that they are accurate and that the information is important.

We will be responsible: It is more important to be right than to be first.

Senior Editor Judy Sly oversees The Modesto Bee's local content. Contact her at 578-2346 or jsly@modbee.com.

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