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Who shot Krentz? Star says an American under investigation

UPDATE: Star has changed the lede of the story, softening it from “American suspect” to “suspect in the United States.” See new blog post about the change.

The Arizona Daily Star, citing anonymous sources, says the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office is “focusing on an American suspect.”

But that’s about it. The extent of the new news in the story is contained in these few paragraphs:

High-ranking government officials with credible information spoke to the Star, citing a desire to quell the fury over illegal immigration and drug smuggling set off by the shooting death of longtime rancher Robert Krentz on March 27.

They said Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever is investigating a person in the United States, not in Mexico, in connection with the shooting.

The Star’s policy is not to use unnamed sources except in instances in which the information is of high public interest.

Reached Sunday by telephone, Dever would not comment.

The rest of the story, written by Brady McCombs, is background on the shooting, mostly dealing with comments that Dever made in March indicating the suspect was an illegal immigrant because a set of tracks found at the crime scene led south to the Mexican border.

I understand the Star wanting to break this news but it might have been better served if it waited and independently sourced the information. This story has no other news in it. We have no way to judge the credibility of that information, other than taking McCombs and the Star at their word that the information is credible.

But they don’t say what that information is in order to judge that credibility.

It is interesting that the Star used the plural when referring to the source of the information – “government officials” and “they said.” The Star also was careful to only call them “government” officials without saying which government – federal, state or local.

But the Star doesn’t say whether more than one source independently verified the information or whether this was two or more people with the same information who came forward together.

I’ve used anonymous sources in the past and overseen several investigations that relied heavily on anonymous sources so I can speculate with a measure of authority as to why the Star is being so circumspect. It’s likely one of two reasons, or possibly both:

One, only a few people are privy to the information and revealing too much about what the sources know will reveal their identity.

Two, the sources would only allow the information to be used if the Star agreed not to reveal much of anything about the investigation because the suspect may not know he or she is under investigation (or some other similar investigatory reason).

The stated motivation of the sources is interesting and possibly telling: “a desire to quell the fury over illegal immigration and drug smuggling.”

I don’t think that motivation adds credibility to the sources. It appears to be politically motivated rather than morally or ethically motivated. Anytime you’re dealing with an anonymous source and trying to decide whether to use the information and whether to grant anonymity, you have to ask yourself what legitimate harm could come to the source if his or her identity is revealed and what does the source gain by the information being made public.

I not sure “quelling fury” is a motivation I’d trust. But then I don’t know everything the Star knows.

I think the news that a suspect in the killing is an American is enormous. So big that it may have tilted the balance toward publishing a story with a single source that contains very little information supporting that claim.

Nevertheless, I might have waited for more reporting to verify the information and give the reader something more to grasp when dealing with such an emotional and politically explosive story.

At the very least, the Star should update the story and say whether the sources independently verified the information and independently requested anonymity. And which type of government they work for.

Let’s see if other media pick it up. Bloggers (like me) certainly will but the mainstream media tend to be cautious when dealing with another news outlet’s anonymous sourcing.

Having said all that, I’ll add – nicely done McCombs. Keep at it.

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