Kentucky sheriff says media orgs should be compelled to ID sources

McCracken County Sheriff's Dept.

Sheriff Jon Hayden reflects on the unusual events of this past week, when The Paducah (Ky.) Sun refused to release the name of the author of a letter alleging a fellow student had made threats to a local high school. As it turned out, the sheriff's department had already investigated those purported threats and found they were based on a misunderstanding: The students some thought were threatening the school were actually discussing the videogame Minecraft.

"This incident would have been cleared up by Monday afternoon, had the name been provided," Hayden writes.

Sun publisher Jim Paxton wrote Wednesday that the sheriff's department made a "show of belligerence" by issuing a critical press release and insisting on reading a subpoena to the paper's executive editor. "Our efforts have been criticized as being [too] pushy," Hayden writes. "For that, we do not apologize."

Hayden then says media organizations should "make it known that any and all information they receive from a known source, or an anonymous source will be turned over to authorities if it is deemed a public safety issue."

I've been unable so far to find out whether the Sun had an agreement with the letter-writing student -- the paper wouldn't comment. It did arrange a meeting between that person and the sheriff's department after consulting with its lawyers. Unless the newspaper had a previous agreement with the letter-writer, a subpoena could compel it to reveal the author's name. Journalists are required to follow the law, which is already adequate in this regard. The passive voice in Hayden's suggested remedy is troubling: Who's going to be in charge of deciding when journalists should be compelled to reveal their sources?

Comments on the post are very interesting: One commenter challenges Hayden to reveal the names of the journalists the Sheriff says have contacted the department "that did not agree with nor approve of [the Sun's] decision." Another was more typical: "People around here are always quick to pick sides on an issue with little to no real information (much like a certain media organization we know is quick to whip the community into a frenzy over something with little to no real information), but I feel confident that the Sheriff's Department did the right thing in getting to the bottom of this issue as quickly as possible."

Previously: Newspaper won’t ID student who wrote letter about weapons in school | Paducah Sun alleges intimidation by authorities over school threat letter

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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