Some sources won’t talk to you unless you grant them confidentiality because they fear for their safety. Journalists should grant those sources confidentiality. Sometimes you can use what they tell you to persuade other sources to go on the record.
This post is part of two series on my blog: updated lessons from old stories and detailed ethics discussions. I discuss the issue of confidential sources more broadly in an accompanying post.
This post is more of a case study, a story that shows good reasons to grant confidentiality to sources and a technique for using information from confidential sources to push reluctant sources into going on the record.
The story will be familiar to football fans. It’s the story of Lawrence Phillips‘ relationship with a woman he had been charged with assaulting. We named the victim in the 1995 story in the Omaha World-Herald. I will just use her initials now. Following the ethical principle of minimizing harm, I don’t see a need to pop a new story (that offers no new information) into Google searches for her name more than 18 years later. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with naming her at the time, but that’s another discussion and another tough ethical issue (I’ll discuss it at the end of this post). My story and other media coverage of that assault certainly deepened her trauma of being assaulted. You can find her name pretty quickly if you search for links about Phillips.
This was Phillips’ first criminal case after bursting onto the national scene as a star running back at the University of Nebraska. (He’s now serving a 31-year prison term for other crimes, including an attack on another girlfriend.) After a dominant sophomore season, he was a strong early contender for the Heisman Trophy after running for 206 yards and four touchdowns against Michigan State in the Cornhuskers’ second game of the season.
But Phillips was arrested that Sunday for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. I covered the police and courts end of the story for the Omaha World-Herald, while colleagues in sports covered the coaches’ statements. Huskers football coach Tom Osborne said he had thrown Phillips off the team (he later reinstated Phillips). The team discipline was separate from the criminal case went, where Phillips was innocent until proven guilty, Osborne said. The coach said he had told Phillips to stay away from the ex-girlfriend, a Husker basketball player, and he was dismissed for disobeying the coach.
Angela Beck, the Husker women’s coach, made a brief statement about supporting the player and providing any help she would need. Beyond their brief statements, both coaches said they would have nothing further to say about the case.
My editors and I agreed that we needed to tell the story of the couple’s relationship. What had happened to prompt Osborne to tell him to stay away from her? What had Osborne known about earlier violence and how had he responded?
As I started talking to Husker athletes, I quickly learned that all the women were terrified of Phillips, who was free on bond. Men didn’t want to talk about him either. No one would talk for the record. And who could blame them? The World-Herald and other media had reported that a furious Phillips had climbed up to a third-floor balcony, caught the ex-girlfriend with another Husker and dragged her down the stairs by her hair. What woman or teammate would want to anger that guy?
I had to grant confidentiality to each woman I talked to. One of them was dating a close friend of Phillips, and Phillips actually came into her apartment with the boyfriend while we were on the phone (I quickly became “Dad” until they left).
This situation illustrates three important factors in deciding whether to grant confidentiality to a source:
- The source should have a good reason to want to avoid accountability for talking to the media. The reasons cited in many news reports by the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi in a Sunday story were pretty lame. Fear of a guy who was prone to violence, on the other hand, was an excellent reason for granting confidentiality. (I should note that the sources often cited consideration for the ex-girlfriend as a factor in their silence, too.)
- Is the source approaching you with information or are you trying to persuade a source to talk? Each of the unnamed sources I used in this story was a Husker athlete I called to ask about the couple’s relationships. They didn’t want to talk to me. I used the promise of confidentiality just to keep them from hanging up on me immediately. On the other hand, if a friend of Phillips had called me unsolicited, offering disparaging information about the ex-girlfriend, I certainly wouldn’t have used it without his name. Confidentiality should be a technique used to persuade reluctant sources to talk, not a shield for eager character assassins.
- Powerful, official sources should be granted confidentiality only in extreme situations. In this instance, I would have been highly unlikely to grant any confidentiality request from Osborne, for instance, or the athletic director or university chancellor. In an accompanying post, I discuss this in relationship to the Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame case during the George W.Bush administration. Back to the Phillips case: the athletes I spoke with who were friends of the ex-girlfriend were vulnerable, with no responsibility to speak publicly. Their insistence on confidentiality was reasonable.
Talking to the ex-girlfriend’s friends, I got a detailed account of the couple’s volatile relationship. More than one woman told me that Phillips’ abuse had come to the attention of their coaches and that in a meeting of the two athletes with Osborne and Beck, each of the coaches had instructed the athletes to stay away from the other.
I had a good story, but it was all based on unnamed sources. I wrote a draft and shared it with my editors. We all agreed that it was a solid story and that we should run it if that was the best we could do. But we also agreed that the heavy use of unnamed sources hurt the story. We decided to use the story to try to persuade either Osborne or Beck to discuss the relationship on the record.
This was early in the days of cell phones, and I didn’t have a way to reach either coach except by going through the sports information director’s office. I sent both coaches the same message: I know you said you’re not going to have anything further to say about the case, but I have a detailed story about the relationship between the two athletes and a meeting they had with the coaches. I want to give you the courtesy of hearing what that story says before it is published. (Of course, I wanted to get something in return, but I guess I didn’t need to say that.)
The invitation worked with both coaches. In both cases, not long after I started reading the story, the coach interjected to correct or clarify. I made sure each coach understood that we were on the record. Then they confirmed most of my content from unnamed sources, making small corrections and clarifications. So, for the meeting, I moved not just from unnamed sources to on-the-record sources but also from second-hand sources to people who actually were in the room for the meeting.
This underscored to me that you need to go back to reluctant sources and try again to get them on the record. Sometimes their initial refusal to talk expresses a hope that you won’t get the story if they don’t talk. But once you have the story, they may have an interest in getting their perspective into the story. Go back to them and try again once you have the story.
Here’s the story that published Sunday, Sept. 17, 1995, with my current comments interspersed in boldface and with current links added. As noted above, the girlfriend is identified only by her initials.
Alleged Assault Puts Phillips, Domestic Abuse in the Spotlight
Coaches, Friends Saw Storm Ahead
Lincoln ― Coaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and friends of basketball player KM tried repeatedly to end her relationship with football star Lawrence Phillips, Coach Tom Osborne and friends of the two athletes said.
Despite pleas and warnings, including a pointed ultimatum from Osborne, Phillips and KM kept talking to each other, a friend said, right up to the evening before the alleged attack that brought them both unwanted national attention.
I still used details from friends, including this one about them talking that evening. Osborne didn’t have the details that some of the friends had, except about the meeting with the athletes. But his confirmation of so many details from the friends increased their credibility with me and, I hoped, with readers.
A few weeks before last Sunday’s incident, a friend said, Osborne told both athletes to stay away from each other and warned Phillips, Nebraska’s star running back and Heisman Trophy candidate, “If you ever touch her again, you will be kicked off the team.” Osborne said in an interview that he wasn’t sure if the friend was right about the exact wording of his ultimatum.
This was where Osborne interrupted my reading of the draft based on unnamed sources. He wasn’t sure the friend was right about the wording, but by giving him a chance to hear her version, I got him to confirm the important information from the friend: the meeting of the athletes and coaches.
“I did tell Lawrence that if there was any trouble that he would be removed from the team,” Osborne said. “I gave KM my home telephone number and said if at any time there was any problem she should give me a call.” By the time Osborne was called last week, it was too late. KM had been injured in an early-morning assault at the apartment of transfer quarterback Scott Frost.
Phillips was charged with misdemeanor assault, and Osborne dismissed him from the football team. Osborne later said he might let Phillips return if he makes significant progress in therapy to control his anger.
Osborne confirmed much of what friends said about a stormy relationship between Phillips and KM. Some friends of Phillips and KM talked only on condition that their names not be used. Other friends declined to talk about the situation, citing consideration for KM.
I had much more luck talking to her friends than his.
“KM doesn’t want anyone to know anything,” a friend said.
KM and her parents declined to comment.
Osborne had said last week that he had an agreement with Phillips about his behavior toward KM, but he did not elaborate on what had led to the agreement. The coach talked at greater length Friday after being told that The World-Herald had learned more about the background to last Sunday’s incident.
Angela Beck, the UNL women’s basketball coach, would not discuss details of incidents between the couple, but said, “She’s been harassed for a while.” Ms. Beck said her primary concern now is making KM feel safe at the university. At times, the coach said, KM’s judgment in dealing with Phillips may have been clouded by fear.
Hal Anderson, Phillips’ Lincoln attorney, said Phillips would have no comment. “He’s not going to talk to you,” Anderson said.
I won’t note all the editing changes I’d make to this story now, though it is too long. But this is a good example of what I call echo quotes: Paraphrasing a quote, then using the quote. I should have just used a paraphrase or a quote from the attorney.
Osborne confirmed that in addition to ordering Phillips to stay away from KM, he warned her to stay away from the football player.
“I really thought that they were staying away from each other for the last couple weeks,” Osborne said.
They weren’t. Phillips was trying to rekindle the relationship they had broken off a few months before, a friend said. KM had started dating Frost, but still talked of possibly resuming her relationship with Phillips. A friend said KM kept believing he could change.
Friends did not share her faith.
“We knew one day this was going to happen,” a friend said. “But you couldn’t tell her that. She always went back to him, but nobody ever understood why.”
Ms. Beck offered a possible explanation. “When you get violated like that, there’s a tremendous amount of fear,” the coach said. “When you’re dealing with fear you react in ways people might not understand.”
By interjecting a coach explaining on the record a detail I had from an unnamed source, I provided strong confirmation. Beck confirmed that the athlete had returned to Phillips after breaking up, but didn’t say it outright. So I let the source say it and came right behind with Beck’s explanation.
In many ways, Phillips and KM were the unlikeliest of matches. “They are from two totally separate worlds,” a friend said. “I couldn’t see people who would be more different.” She comes from a large, upper-middle-class Catholic family in Topeka, Kan., with close sisters and parents who came to Lincoln to watch her basketball games. Phillips grew up in the Los Angeles area, spending his adolescence in a group home, at times in trouble because of his volatile temper.
But something clicked between them. As freshmen studying and socializing together with other athletes, they grew close before they started dating.
“She was almost like a best friend,” a friend said. “He really confided in her. He didn’t do that with anybody else.” Much of the talk was about Phillips’ troubled past and his adjustment to life in Lincoln.
“It was real difficult for him to be here,” a friend said. “She just tried to help him through a lot of things.” KM’s friendship with Phillips “was almost like a learning experience,” a friend said. “She said that Lawrence opened her eyes up to a whole different world. . . . KM knew a lot of things that went back to his childhood. . . . She was probably one of the only people who knew everything about him — here in Nebraska.” Another friend said, “I think that KM maybe has felt that she could help him.”
A friend said KM talked frequently on the phone with Tina McElhannon, who runs the group home in West Covina, Calif., where Phillips spent his adolescence. Osborne has described Ms. McElhannon as Phillips’ legal guardian in his youth.
The struggles that Phillips apparently confided to KM included his lifelong battle to control his anger.
“She knew Lawrence had a bad temper but nothing like this,” a friend said.
Osborne knew about the temper, too. Phillips had two earlier run-ins with Lincoln police and was suspended from a game during his freshman year for fighting with a teammate.
“In one sense his anger has served him very well,” Osborne said. “He has controlled it on the football field so that he’s a great player. In other ways, it’s very destructive.” Friends described the relationship with Phillips as unusual for KM.
“KM’s the type of person – she doesn’t get really close to people,” a friend said.
The relationship evolved from friendship to romance toward the end of their freshman year, the spring of 1994, a friend said.
“It may have been the first really close relationship that he’s had,” Osborne said, “the first person he cared very much about.” They didn’t date in large groups with the rest of KM’s friends, most of whom didn’t like Phillips.
They would date alone, or with just one other couple.
Phillips, who started for most of his freshman year and was a star as a sophomore, found it difficult to go out in Lincoln without being recognized and bothered. He and KM would go to movies together or rent movies to watch at his apartment. Sundays they would watch pro football.
“They were not very affectionate toward each other,” a friend said. “I never saw them show emotion toward each other.” Friends said they slowly became aware of violence in the relationship.
Twice last school year, friends noticed bruises on KM, once on her neck and once on her arms. She skipped classes and stopped socializing until the bruises faded.
“When she had that one on her neck, it was very visible,” a friend said.
She explained them away as bruises from basketball. Some friends suspected that Phillips had caused the bruises. “We had tried to get her to say something then,” a friend said.
To casual acquaintances, her explanation was plausible. “It wasn’t like her eye was black and blue,” a friend said.
The bruises did not dissuade KM from seeing Phillips. “She would be right back with him the next day,” a friend said.
Friends considered calling her parents. “We tried to talk to KM and reason with her,” one said. “She would say, ‘Stay out of my business. ‘ ”
Ms. Beck said, “I never personally saw bruises on her.” The coach added, though, that she had known of problems in the relationship for the past five or six months.
The details about the bruises came from multiple friends. It was an important detail, but since Beck couldn’t confirm it, I needed to say that, too.
The fights were not strictly one-way.
“KM used to fight him back,” a friend said. “She’d put wounds on him.” One fracas occurred when she went to his apartment, and he didn’t want her to come in.
A friend said KM called the police once, after Phillips slashed her tires. She didn’t identify Phillips as the person responsible, though, and no police report was filed, a friend said. Lincoln Police Chief Tom Casady said he was not aware of the incident and could not verify it if no report had been filed.
Also in that same incident, Phillips threw a vase, causing damage in her apartment, a friend said.
They broke up several months ago. “They had broken up before, but you always knew they’d get back together,” a friend said.
Here’s where social media might have been helpful if I were doing the story today (more on that later). If she had noted on Facebook that she was “in a relationship,” it would be a nice detail to note when she changed that status, if she had, and if I could get that detail.
The friend described the parting as “a mutual thing. . . . KM just knew it was something that wasn’t going to be forever.” Neither the friends nor coaches would say specifically what brought coaches into the matter during the summer, except to say that Phillips harassed KM.
One friend said there was “no physical contact” in the recent incidents that brought the matter to a head before the alleged assault last Sunday.
“I know there was no violence,” the friend stressed.
Osborne said it was “the direction the relationship was headed” that concerned him.
A friend said the concerns included phone calls Phillips made late at night.
Eventually friends told Osborne and Ms. Beck of their concerns.
Osborne said he discussed the matter with Ms. Beck and talked twice by telephone with KM.
“I talked to Lawrence several times about the importance of not having anything happen,” Osborne said. “I did everything that I knew that I could do at the time to ensure her safety.” KM was upset at her friends for telling the coaches and “denied any of this had even happened,” a friend said. “When they all went to Coach Osborne and Coach Beck, everything was brought up from past fights.” Osborne told Phillips and KM to stop seeing each other.
“I asked at one time if she wanted to press charges. She said she didn’t,” Osborne said. He said he didn’t know if that incident had been violent but wanted to stress to KM that she had that option.
“I was a little unclear as to what had happened,” he said.
In addition to ordering Phillips to stay away from KM, Osborne ordered him to get counseling to help control his anger. The coach said Phillips seemed to be responding. He attended counseling sessions twice a week, and the counselor felt he was doing well, Osborne said.
The coach said the situation was not one of steady trouble, but of occasional outbursts.
“I don’t want people to have this image of Lawrence that he’s a dangerous person out there stalking people because that hasn’t happened,” Osborne said. “He has a problem with anger, and he sometimes loses control.”
Despite the warnings, Phillips persisted in calling KM, friends said and Osborne later learned.
“Lawrence has been wanting to work things out for the past month,” a friend said.
KM recently started dating Frost. For the most part, she was not interested in getting back together romantically with Phillips but wanted to maintain the friendship, a friend said.
Frost and KM had been friends for a while and “just kind of started casually dating” a few weeks before the alleged assault, a friend said.
They tried to keep the relationship a secret.
“Scott was very well aware of this whole thing with Lawrence,” a friend said. “Nobody knew they were dating. . . . She was afraid of what he would do if he found out.” Despite the fear and the warnings from Osborne and friends, KM kept talking to Phillips. They talked by phone the Thursday and Friday before Nebraska’s Sept. 9 game against Michigan State in East Lansing.
“She said they just talked as friends and it was just great,” a friend said.
They talked again by telephone that Saturday after he returned from Michigan. He had rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns, stamping himself as a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy.
Phillips was in a good mood that evening, a friend said.
“He’s a real mellow guy,” the friend said. “I know he didn’t know about it (her relationship with Frost) then.” KM called Phillips again later Saturday evening and even discussed with a friend the possibility that they could get back together.
“I think he’s really changing,” she told the friend. “He’s being so nice. We’re getting along great.” KM wasn’t ready, though, to break off with Frost. In fact, she told a friend, she was planning to spend the night at his apartment. The friend had a feeling of dread when they parted late that night.
“I knew if Lawrence ever knew she was with Scott, he would go crazy,” the friend said. “I told her, ‘Be careful. ‘ ” It is unclear how Phillips found out.
“All I know is he got a phone call in the middle of the night and somebody led him over there,” Osborne said. “I don’t know who it was, and I’m not prying.” Osborne said it was not Phillips who told him about the phone call.
This was my primary frustration with the final story: I was never able to identify who ratted the girlfriend out and set up the confrontation. That’s an interview I really wanted to get.
Police and witnesses say Phillips went to Frost’s north Lincoln apartment about 4:45 a.m. last Sunday, apparently climbing up to a window on a stairway landing, then to the third-floor balcony and entering through an unlocked sliding door.
I looked over the apartment building and it did take an amazing athlete to climb up to the third-floor balcony.
Phillips found KM in the bathroom and allegedly threw her to the floor, hit her and dragged her downstairs. KM came free of his grasp in a scuffle in the foyer, as Frost and a neighbor tried to intervene. Frost and the neighbor pulled the security door shut, locking Phillips out in the foyer.
Police, summoned by Frost, arrested Phillips. He was arraigned Tuesday on charges of third-degree assault, trespassing and destruction of property. He allegedly bashed in mailboxes in the foyer.
Several media outlets mistakenly reported that Phillips bashed her head into the mailboxes. That wasn’t true. She had escaped and was on the other side of the locked door when he pounded the mailboxes with his fists. Seeing how badly he dented sturdy metal apartment mailboxes was pretty scary to me.
Osborne initially threw Phillips off the team, then changed the punishment to an indefinite suspension.
“My stance at this time is that he’s off the team and he does not return” until he receives “intensive” medical help, Osborne said Friday.
The coach said he restored the possibility of returning to the team because he feared that otherwise the situation could get worse.
Osborne was widely criticized for letting Phillips return to the team and play in the national championship game against Florida, which Nebraska won, 62-24.
“The thing that would motivate him at this time to get help is football,” Osborne said. “If that was taken away, I don’t think he would go through the pain it would take for him to get better.”
Ms. Beck echoed the widely voiced view that Phillips needs help. But she stressed that he alone is responsible for the consequences that have resulted from the incident.
“He made choices in this deal,” she said. “When he scaled the wall, he decided he didn’t want to be all he could be.”
KM was treated at a hospital for a cut suffered in the alleged attack. Friends said she is distraught about the attack, about being identified publicly as the victim, about the national publicity the incident has received and about the pain it has caused for her parents.
Friends said KM intends to stay in school, though some have urged her to take this semester off. A friend said she believes that KM is going to get counseling.
A friend said KM still cares for Phillips and worries about him. “Even after all this, she’s like, ‘How’s Lawrence? ‘ ” a friend said.
“She’s hurt for Lawrence.” But she’s also afraid, friends said. A friend said she understood that the school was providing a bodyguard for KM.
Osborne would not confirm that she has a bodyguard, but said, “Every step has been taken that we feel would be appropriate.” He said he had talked with KM and her parents since the alleged assault to discuss ways to ensure her safety.
Ms. Beck also would not confirm that a bodyguard was being provided, but she praised the university administration and athletic department for their response to the situation. “They have shown extreme concern for her safety,” Ms. Beck said.
I should have followed up to see if we could find a payment from school or athletic department funds for the bodyguard. I don’t recall whether a colleague in our Lincoln bureau did check on that.
The coach said she hopes that KM can continue school and rejoin the basketball team.
“We’re going to put 100 percent effort to make her feel safe at Nebraska,” Ms. Beck said. “The only reason I took this job at Nebraska is that I thought Nebraska is a place everyone could want their daughter to come.”
A couple more observations about how I would handle this story differently if working on it now:
Social media would be a tremendously important tool in working this story today. I’m doubtful that anyone would post actual helpful information on social media about any of the incidents of violence or about the meeting with the coaches. And you have to presume that the athletes’ Facebook accounts would be private.
But I also presume that some of my sources would have been able to look at the athletes’ social media profiles and share with me any updates or pictures either had posted about their relationship, if any. Or, as I noted in the story, a friend showing me her Facebook posts might have been able to tell when (or if) she posted that they were “in a relationship” or anything noting the breakup.
At the very least, social media might have helped me in the process of tracking down their friends to try for interviews. Because she was an athlete, I was able to try other Husker female athletes because I knew they were a pretty close-knit group. But Facebook posts, if I could get access, would help identify other friends I might want to contact.
Another significant difference in doing this story today would be the use of cellphones. In 1995, most of the students I called didn’t have cellphones. I had to reach them on their dorm phones, mostly late at night, and couldn’t leave messages (not knowing who might hear the messages; a message heard by the wrong person could identify a person as the source even if she never agreed to talk to me). Cell phones would have made it much easier to reach sources quickly and leave messages that only they would hear.
Should you identify the victim
I didn’t feel entirely comfortable identifying KM in 1995. I think she was identified in the breaking story, before I became involved in the story, so I don’t recall that we discussed it heavily.
Other media would probably take that decision away from you, but I encourage consideration of whether to identify the victim in a story about domestic abuse. We often shield the identities of victims of sexual abuse. Domestic abuse can be as traumatic (and sometimes involves sexual abuse) and news organizations and individual journalists should consider whether to withhold the identities in stories like this.
Of course, in this situation, it would have been essential to identify her as a Husker basketball player because he coach was part of the story. Would it be fair to other members of the team not to identify her? Also, in domestic abuse cases where you identify the attacker, you essentially identify the victim, at least to people who know the couple.
This isn’t an easy call, but I encourage consideration of the most humane way to handle reporting that thrusts a victim of domestic abuse into the spotlight.
More on confidential sources
If you’re interested in this issue, I encourage you to read my three accompanying posts:
You can quote me on that (my 2005 workshop handout)
Telling stories of abortion or difficult births (how I got people on the record about a difficult topic by giving them an unusual option)
Want to contribute a guest post?
I welcome guest posts either disagreeing with me on issues discussed here or presenting some stories of your own and how you dealt with confidential sources. Or please share in the comments links to other helpful posts on these issues.