I sacrificed a story

Sometimes – not often, but perhaps a couple time a career – it is best to walk away from a good story.

It is approaching 15 years since this happened and I have never shared this story with anyone because someone might think I am not a good journalist. Now I am going to share it because I believe it shows I am a good journalist.

I built an excellent relationship with a police department to the point the chief and lieutenant called me with scoops and breaking stories, sometimes having me jump out of bed in middle of the night to rush to a drug bust or burglary arrest. The police department liked the exposure in the news because it made them more visible to the public and fortified their figures with the city council come budget time, and I liked it because it gave me rock star photos and stories other papers in my area could only wish for.

I covered a routine house fire in a nice neighborhood one morning and that afternoon the chief called me to the police station for a meeting. The neighbor who called 911 to report the fire told investigators that just before seeing smoke coming from the house he saw a man run out the back door and pour something onto the grass near a fence. Detectives returned and discovered a soup of chemicals liken to methamphetamine poured along the fence line. The chief told me he was starting an investigation to determine if a meth lab caught fire at the house and he wanted me ready for the scoop.

Needless to say, my story angle took a drastic turn and I began lining up an interview with the good neighbor and hoping for word of an arrest warrant before my deadline.

The following morning the chief phoned me with an odd request.
“I need a favor, Chris.”
Oh yeah. Sure, chief. You know me.
“I would like for you not to report anything I told you yesterday afternoon.”
You mean about the neighbor seeing the guy poring meth on the grass before the fire?
I took a long ten seconds to gather my thoughts and asked the chief if he could tell me why he wanted me to kill the story.
“Sorry, I can't tell you. I just need you to not print the story.”

His voice was not strict or demanding but somewhat exasperated and disappointed. During the next long pause it felt as though we were reading each other’s thoughts. I had the right to report the story no matter what the chief said, and it would be a great story that I had the exclusive on. Furthermore, I had reporter’s rights and freedom of the press to uphold.
I said “You have my word,” and the chief said thanks and hung up.

I printed a routine report about the house fire in the newspaper, including a statement from the fire marshal about the damage and a photograph of firefighters in action, and that’s all. I never mentioned my conversations with the police chief to my editor or anyone else.

For a while I imagined what scenario made the chief want to kill the story, but in time I just let it go.  In fact, it was as if nothing happened – I still had an excellent relationship with the police department, I still had first access to great stories and sometimes exclusive access and I still got calls in the middle of the night for drug busts and burglary arrests, all because I did not sacrifice that relationship for one good story.

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The hero speaks

I was pleased to have John Daniel Garcia respond on the blog post I wrote about him. What a cool guy and a great reporter. If you have not read it, the blog post is here.

"Hello Christopher. Thanks for the kind words. The whole debacle was strange and I had begun to ready myself for jail. Luckily we have a good lawyer and another great reporter, Alberto Tomas Halpern, who wrote a first amendment story following the subpoena. Thanks for keeping an eye on journalists' rights."

Another cool picture from John's Facebook page.

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