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Journalist Who Brought Laquan McDonald Shooting to Public Eye Says He Won’t Reveal His Source

“People put their trust in us. [When] people have reason to fear retaliation or other public harms, we need to be worthy of that trust,” Jamie Kalven says.

Independent journalist Jamie Kalven wrote a 2015 article that first brought to light the Laquan McDonald shooting.   Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

Journalist Jamie Kalven was instrumental in blowing open the story about Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting Laquan McDonald. In an award-winning story published in Slate more than two years ago, “16 Shots,” he detailed the vast discrepancy between official police accounts and witness testimony—as well as autopsy records that revealed the young man had been shot 16 times.

At the center of his story was a secret source.

Now Van Dyke is facing trial for murder, and this week his attorneys subpoenaed Kalven to get him on the stand. Implicit in attorney Dan Herbert’s comments to the press is that they want Kalven to reveal his source.

While “shield laws,” or a concept called reporter’s privilege, exist in some states to protect journalists and their sources, not all situations qualify. Reporters around the country, including in Illinois, have faced the threat of jail time for not revealing who gave them information essential to their stories. 

Chicago caught up with Kalven to discuss his reaction to the subpoena and the responsibility of journalists to their sources.

What was your initial reaction upon receiving the subpoena?

I had just come back over the weekend from being abroad and went to the office on Monday and found that a subpoena had been served that morning asking me to appear at 9 a.m. the following day—less than 24 hrs notice. I have certainly been subpoenaed before and had battled over my notes a decade ago with the city.

My initial reaction, and the reaction persists, was some bewilderment that I had any meaningful role in the Van Dyke murder trial. The one thing that is clear in the confusion is that I am not revealing my sources.

Will you go on the stand? And how much can you reveal without hurting your source?

I certainly will appear and take a stand, assuming that that is what I’m being asked to do, out of respect for the court and the process. Ten years ago, I worked through those issues pretty thoroughly during a sustained 18-month siege by the city law office at the time. [In 2005, the city of Chicago’s lawyers subpoenaed Kalven’s notes about his investigation into a group of corrupt officers.]  

Why is it important for you to keep your source’s identity secret?

It’s fundamental to our practice as journalists. People put their trust in us. Especially in circumstances where people have reason to fear retaliation or other public harms, we need to be worthy of that trust. There is also your ability to do this kind of reporting in the future—if you were to expose a source under duress you’d be effectively crippled going forward.

At the center of this covenant with your source that people take considerable risk and invest trust in you in the hope that a story they are involved in is of deep public importance. The craft we bring, the effort we bring, is part of satisfying the covenant, but protecting the identity of sources is the first principle.

Do you have a response to allegations that what you uncovered later impacted the investigation?

There were various allegations that certainly came as news to me. My reporting was done long before the indictments were returned or there was even acknowledgement that this had happened, so there is a kind of element of time travel for this to me and trying to imagine what could possibly have impacted the investigation of Officer Van Dyke. I have not been shown any evidence of this and I don’t see what the relevance is, so that is one of the questions I will have going into this process.

What has been the impact of what you revealed about the Laquan McDonald shooting, almost exactly two years after the dashcam videos were released?

I am really uncertain what the impact is. I think that what tends to happen with things like this is a retrospective narrative takes hold that is much more linear than the reality. A lot of different things are in the mix in terms of big historical events like this, so I would be the last person to claim that the article was the cause of some of the major events.

You do the best work you can, and events unfold, and you are part of those events but it would be presumptuous to think that your work is driving those events. I am beyond gratified that some of my reporting has had significant impact in recent years.

I do think for us as journalists this is part of the job description. We can overdramatize it but this is just what we do as journalists.

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