By Ron VandenBoom
If you're not willing to tell me your name, don't call.
That's the message I want to leave the brave souls who over the last few weeks have called to give me a "hot tip" on issues they would like to see me write about.
The most interesting phone call came a few weeks ago.
"I want you to take your camera, drive out to the east end of town, look up at the sky, and take some pictures of the vapor trails," the voice said. "Then, get on the Internet and look up chemtrails.com and write a story."
The next sound I heard was the click of a receiver.
Not realizing that I only take orders from my wife, the caller had made several critical errors in judgment. He had neglected to give me his name or provide any documentable information, and failing this, he didn't know how to imitate my wife's voice over the phone.
Despite these errors, I turned to the Internet and looked up the address he'd given me. I soon realized that the Web site was for lack of a better description a conspiracy site.
The site detailed how the government had been involved in secret chemical experiments using the American people as guinea pigs. The vapor trails were you guessed it secret chemicals being released from jet aircraft to fall unsuspectingly on innocent civilians.
Web sites, of course, are proof of nothing. Anybody, including newspapers, can produce a Web site and say anything they want. Simply posting something in cyberspace does not constitute fact.
My camera, that day, remained on vacation, but I did go outside and admire the pretty ribbons of vapor crisscrossing the sky.
Another brave heart called me at home one evening to tell me all of the horrible truths about Prairie Vista Manor in Big Sandy. Prairie Vista was a nursing home for mostly mentally ill patients that recently lost Medicaid funding and was forced to close.
This unfortunately might have been a story, or at least part of a story, if the caller had been willing to go "on the record" with his comments or provide documentation to back up his claims.
Of course making an allegation, even with a name attached, does not necessarily constitute news much less fact. Many comments can also be libelous. The accuser and the newspaper can be legally liable if the information is not backed up by irrefutable proof. This the caller could not provide.
This doesn't mean that a caller's tip can never prove meaningful. Indeed, a tip that can be researched, and for which documentation can be found, could be very valuable.
This kind of tip however needs to begin with a certain degree of trust between the caller and the reporter. This, at a minimum, means a willingness to provide the reporter with documentation, a name, and a phone number where the caller can be contacted later for more information or to respond to any discrepancies.
A call I received last week didn't fall into any category except maybe that of vendetta.
This anonymous caller wanted me to write something on the race for city judge.
The caller pointed out that this was a paid position in city government and only one candidate, incumbent Joyce Perszyk, has so far filed for the office.
The caller wasn't specific about what kind of a story he thought was needed in order to inform the community about the race except to point out that a former city court clerk had stolen more than $10,000 from the city while Perszyk was judge.
The caller never mentioned that it was Perszyk who discovered the theft and reported it to the police. Nor did he say anything about the extra work she did helping the police prove their case once the crime was discovered.
Several times I asked the caller why he had such a strong interest in this particular race. I never received a specific reason.
It's only a guess, but I suspect the caller doesn't like the judge, perhaps for personal reasons, and was trying to enlist the newspaper in a vendetta.
Tips can be a valuable tool for reporters and we generally encourage people to call with story ideas and tips. We appreciate fresh, unique, and interesting ideas because if you find it interesting, so might someone else. Tips on breaking news can also be valuable because what you see happening, we might not even know about yet.
But if you are on a mission, have a vendetta, or believe little green men have taken over city hall, don't call me. I don't write for the "X-Files."