A tip was e-mailed to us the other day, and came complete with an attached copy of a document from an official body that made it clear the information was correct, and something for which we could get official confirmation.
Even as I write this, we are following up on that e-mail, working to verify the information independently and write a story.
In a situation like the one last week, when a tip comes with documentation, it's a no-brainer. If it's a valid story, we will be able to verify the information, contact the necessary people and write about it.
While we don't expect them all to be that easy (and they almost never are), being able to prove the information in a tip is accurate is crucial.
We get a lot of calls, e-mails, letters and personal visits from people wanting to know if we can do a story on a particular subject or, in some cases, why we haven't done a story about something they've heard.
The answer depends on the circumstances: We weren't aware of the information until we read your e-mail; we tried, maybe are still trying, but have not been able to verify the information; we found out that the information was inaccurate and there was nothing to write about; we've already written about the matter; we could not prove or disprove the information; we're working on it.
Sometimes, a governmental body might have refused to provide the information and we've filed a public information request. Such requests might get us the information, but agencies can take up to 30 days to provide it. Sometimes, it gets us nothing, because the agency cites legal reasons why it believes we are not entitled to the information we're seeking.
In some cases, it can be difficult, maybe impossible, for us to get certain types of information. We do not have subpoena power, we cannot issue warrants and we cannot force people to submit to questioning. That gives us a decided disadvantage over those who legally can demand information.
Private disputes are a lot trickier than government secrecy. We get calls from people involved in situations with their neighbors, their banks, their doctors, their employers, their former spouses, or some other person or entity.
It's extremely difficult for us to get involved in some types of personal matters. For one thing, while the person who calls might have an interesting story to tell, that's only one side of the issue.
It's important to know that even if a caller's problem is such that we could try to write about it, we would not do so without getting the other side of the story. At that point, the whole thing is likely to become a they said-they said thing, and without the legal powers mentioned above, we have little hope of sorting the facts from opinion and bad feelings.
If we're going to print something bad about a caller's neighbor, bank, doctor, employer, former spouse, etc., we have to be able to prove what we print.
Occasionally, there is an e-mail or letter suggesting we have not written about something because we're covering for some individual, government body or business.
Whatever our faults, omissions and lapses of judgment, we do not cover for anybody. Ever.
Nothing I've said should be construed to mean we don't want tips — we do. They have been at the root of some of our most significant stories over the years. If readers keep the tips coming, we'll continue trying to sort them out.
Linda Duffield is city editor of The Herald-Mail. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.