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Please go on the record when you talk to The Day

We don't blame you for being skeptical about news stories quoting anonymous sources. 

How can you believe information from people who don't want to be identified?

We don't quote anonymous sources in The Day unless somebody with important information convinces us they are in fear for their safety or of losing their job, or if there's an extraordinary circumstance.

When reporters want to use an anonymous source, they must discuss it with an editor. If we decide to quote someone we are not identifying, we explain why, and we ask reporters to verify information with at least three sources.

"If you're going to use an anonymous source, you better check out their story backwards and forwards," Joe Wojtas, our longtime Stonington reporter who also works on the city desk, said this week. He described himself as a "big anti-anonymous source person." He's an excellent teacher of young reporters, who sometimes feel awkward pressing people to use their names.

"I consider it lazy reporting, or sloppy reporting," Wojtas said. "There's way too much use of anonymous sources, mostly on the national level. A 'senior government official?' Who is that? Or 'someone with knowledge of' the situation?' Who is the person with knowledge? It could be someone who has it thirdhand. It just destroys the confidence people have in the media."

Wojtas spent months reporting about Stonington High School teacher and coach Timothy Chokas after hearing persistent rumors that Chokas repeatedly touched female students inappropriately and made inappropriate, sexually charged comments to them. Wojtas filed Freedom of Information Act requests and confronted officials with the information he was gathering.

He wanted some of the young women to tell the story on the record.

"My rule was that these young women had to talk on the record with their names for two reasons: One, it instills credibility in the story; and two, it would be unfair to Mr. Chokas to damage his reputation by someone speaking anonymously about him," Wojtas said. "Lots of them would talk to me off the record. Some would cancel at the last minute. I remember going to meet someone at a coffee shop in Westerly. At the last minute, she called and said, 'I can't do this.'"

He eventually wrote a story using some of the names. They were women who had moved on to college and adult life, and retelling the incident was dredging up a bad memory. But once they went public, more young women "came out of the woodwork," Wojtas said.

"We got calls. Social media blew up. We got emails. People posted on the Stonington Community forum on Facebook about their experiences," he said.

The on-the-record accounts of Chokas' behavior and Wojtas' persistent reporting had lasting impacts. Chokas resigned in 2019. The state child advocate concluded in a report that the school district had not done all it could to respond to allegations.

Wojtas won a First Amendment Award from the New England Newspaper & Press Association for his reporting.

Though we don't usually name sexual assault victims, Wojtas said he convinced people who said they'd been abused by Catholic priests in the Diocese of Norwich to be identified in his stories. Speaking to many sources helps reporters get a fuller picture of a situation, and Wojtas said he spoke with people who wanted to remain off the record and explained to them that their stories wouldn't appear in the paper.

He promised those who agreed to use their names that he'd handle the information with sensitivity, and said he never received any complaints.

"It just builds credibility," he said. "Once again, I don't want to trash someone's reputation. If you're going to say someone is a pedophile, I want to make sure that's on the record."

Wojtas' rule applies to most of our day-to-day reporting, though he said there are those rare instances when we agree to withhold identities. He cited as one example a series of reports former staffer Paul Choiniere wrote in the 1990s about safety issues at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station. Choiniere's sources were whistleblowers whose identities had to be protected.

That was a rare situation, indeed.

The next time you talk to a Day reporter, please remember the "Wojtas Rule" and speak on the record. 

Karen Florin is The Day's Engagement Editor. She can be reached at k.florin@theday.com or (860) 701-4217.  

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