Snitching on a Snitch

The Strib outs a police informant. Was it worth the risk?

"It's not a decision that's made lightly, and not the sort of thing we do very often, as a rule."

What was it about this particular story that necessitated the temporary change in policy? "It shows that there's an ongoing relationship between Mr. Porter and the officers that were alleged to have assaulted him," Gyllenhaal says. "I think it changes the nature of the case in significant ways, and we will find out more in time."

To be sure, the informant claim was new, which is why it's understandable that the seasoned reporters and front-line editors caught up in the rush of a breaking story would not only feel obliged to seriously discuss everything they hear, but would likewise scratch and claw to get every fresh fact into print. Upper management, however, has a higher charge. In this case, they have to weigh the value of a tangential piece of personal testimony against a man's safety. There's absolutely no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that Porter's status as an informer was at issue before, during, or after the alleged assault. As a result, it's hard not to conclude, as many have, that aggravated cops seduced the paper into operating as a mouthpiece--especially since the key sources in the story, no matter how "reliable," remain anonymous.

Tony Nelson

At the very least, the paper should have put the charges in context, either by allowing a named source to theorize on the relevance of the relationship (and how it may well have motivated Jindra to behave violently) or by putting together a separate piece of news analysis to justify its decision to alter an informal policy not to name informants. When asked about those options, though, Gyllenhaal falls back on the tired bromide that a journalist's job is simply to supply the facts, even if, taken out of context, they can threaten to overshadow the story itself. "I don't know if this situation is the kind of thing where [a piece of analysis] would be helpful. In a case like this, you just have to go back to how powerful and disturbing these allegations are. The most important thing we do is put out as much information as possible and let people make their own decisions about that information."

On Saturday, October 18, the morning after the informer story hit the streets, the Strib ran a follow-up piece in the same space on the Metro/State page, entitled "Man Denies Being Informant." Chanen, McEnroe, and staff writer Rosalind Bentley unveiled a series of arrest records, which would have made the initial story markedly stronger, that indicate Porter "tried to help himself by offering several times to assist police, including once as recently as June 4." Still, the reporters fail to establish an explicit link between Porter's alleged status as a snitch and the alleged sexual assault.

That task is left to the Pioneer Press, which printed a story in its Saturday paper that made it clear that police, unlike editors at the Star Tribune, are careful never to out their informants, since more often than not the results are deadly. "I wouldn't want any informant name out there," Dan Grout, a recently retired lieutenant with the Minneapolis Police Department, told PiPress reporter Hannah Allam. "That's signing a death warrant."

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