When a Story Tells Truths, Sources May Suffer

Sometimes reporters have to weigh whether their sources will suffer if the truth comes to light. That's true for investigative reporters covering high-level whistleblowers. It's also true for those who cover education.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Reporters sometimes have to weigh whether their sources will suffer if truth comes to light. Now that's true for investigative reporters covering whistleblowers, but it's also true for those who cover education, as NPR's Larry Abramson found out. Here's an entry from his Reporter's Notebook.

LARRY ABRAMSON: I've been making regular visits to Northwestern High School in Baltimore this year. It would be a colossal understatement to say that this 40-year-old building needs work. One item I use as a barometer for building repairs is a broken window in Room 401, where Sandra Herrera teaches biology. I'm not talking about a little crack. There's a big chunk of glass missing, leaving behind a crescent-shaped shard.

Herrera reported this to the district back in December. When I checked in recently, she said nothing had changed. In fact, she said things were just as bad down the hall.

Ms. SANDRA HERRERA (Biology Teacher, Northwestern High School): Mr. Wallace, did you have a broken window in here by any chance?

Mr. WALLACE (Teacher, Northwestern High School): Yes, a couple.

Ms. HERRERA: Where?

Mr. WALLACE: I tell you what I - oh, yes.

Ms. HERRERA: Just show me.

ABRAMSON: Mr. Wallace jumps up and displays a rogues gallery of windows that won't close, letting the cold Baltimore winter into his room.

(Soundbite of thuds)

Mr. WALLACE: This is one. Now, besides (unintelligible) tight shut because it doesn't close...

Ms. HERRERA: Uh-huh.

Mr. WALLACE: So this, they just put in a piece of Plexiglas and (unintelligible) it and the wind popped it up. Now, this one...

ABRAMSON: Sandra Herrera is not a complainer. She's dedicated to this troubled school. She's also been following my work and chastises me when she feels I've failed to recognize the commitment of the teaching staff. But as the department head, she wants to help her colleagues, and she's kind of enjoying this little tour.

Ms. HERRERA: Come, go this way. I dare you.

ABRAMSON: But Herrera knows she might be cutting off her nose to spite her face. She's not talking to a friend.

Ms. HERRERA: Are you taping me now?

ABRAMSON: Yeah.

Yes, I'm taping. I'm always taping. It's the only way I can get the story out. Herrera shows me another room, which is emanating a loud chirping sound.

Ms. HERRERA: Okay, listen.

(Soundbite of heater)

ABRAMSON: What is that?

Ms. HERRERA: The heater.

ABRAMSON: I'm starting to wonder, and I guess she is too, is this going to get her in trouble? And is the story of the broken window important enough to risk burning a source?

SIMON: NPR's Larry Abramson has been reporting this year from Northwestern High School in Baltimore.

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