Last winter, I was sitting in the newsroom during finals week, printing something out for a class when I saw all of The Daily’s news editors gathered in a room. They were talking intensely about something, and I was curious about what it was, but I figured I’d know eventually.
A few days later, they dropped a huge story – OU’s development office had been misreporting alumni donation numbers under former OU President David Boren’s tenure, and the university was currently funding an investigation into what happened.
Nick Hazelrigg, The OU Daily’s current Editor-in-Chief who served as assistant news managing editor when he wrote the story, said he reported the story over about a month and a half before it was finally pushed the week of finals in 2018.
“I was told by someone who had more knowledge of the situation involving the misreporting that it might be a thing and that from what they knew it was an open secret,” Hazelrigg said. “And if I were to talk to more people, they might be able to confirm that. But yeah, someone came forward anonymously and first tipped me off about this.”
Hazelrigg said the source found him through someone else who worked at The Daily, who recommended to Hazelrigg that he get in contact with the source. He said he talked with the source for a while off the record to confirm the things he’d heard the source knew about.
“Luckily, this person when they reached out, they recommended some people that might be good sources to reach out to them might be privy to the information,” Hazelrigg said. “I reached out to all them and I only really heard back from two of the four people that he recommended I reach out to.”
When talking with these other sources for confirmation, Hazelrigg explained to them that although they may not want their names in the story, anonymous confirmation on what was true would be “really helpful.”
“I also obtained, through one of my sources, a document that sort of backed up the rumors that there was misreporting on behalf of the department of development,” Hazelrigg said. “So I was able to confirm it in the story saying that I had three people who had confirmed it was true, and then I had one document that was internal to the university that also sort of confirmed what was true.”
Hazelrigg said one issue that came up while reporting the story was that some people were unclear on whether or not misreporting had occurred, but knew people had been interviewed by Jones Day about misreporting.
“They couldn’t tell me whether or not they knew that was true,” Hazelrigg. “But they could say ‘I was interviewed by Jones Day about this. And they asked me questions about, you know, inflated numbers and Vice President Tripp Hall,’ and stuff like that, and so became pretty clear.”
After seeing the document he obtained that was internal to the development office, which stated that the alumni giving rates were 7 percent versus the U.S. News and World Report’s reported 13 percent, Hazelrigg said he felt solid in his reporting.
Hazelrigg believes the source felt comfortable bringing this tip to The Daily because at that time, other area publications were not as focused on looking into what was going on at OU – as The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World had only really done surface-level stories on President Gallogly’s selection at the time, and not much else.
“Now that’s obviously changed,” Hazelrigg said. “I think that after a lot of this came out, it became clear there was a lot going on at OU and these other these other publications sort of ramped it up a little bit. But back then, I mean, it was really The Daily that was doing the bulk of the reporting on some of the scandals that were happening during the Gallogly’s first couple months in office.”
The most important thing Hazelrigg said to consider when reporting stories through anonymous sources is negotiating the extent to which the reporter can use them in a story, and being clear about how the information the source provided will be written.
“You obviously don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable but giving them assurances about whether their name would be used or whether there would be any sort of situation where somebody could link it back to them…that’s just really important,” Hazelrigg said.