Beginning in December, The State newspaper in Columbia knew somebody was trying to expose Mark Sanford's alleged affair.
When anonymous e-mails showed up from a United Kingdom e-mail account, the paper couldn't be sure if they were bull or bombshells. Attempts were made to authenticate the love notes, but without success. So the paper waited.
Then they were tipped about the governor's flight from Argentina and a reporter approached him at the airport in Atlanta. The governor may not have known then that the e-mails were in play, but he likely suspected that The State knew of his affair. Sanford admitted his infidelity shortly thereafter at a Wednesday press conference.
Part of the fallout from the Sanford affair is a discussion of how the capital city newspaper acted — or did not act — on what it had been given in December. For months, the paper's approach appears to have been one of great restraint.
"Sex scandals usually start with a tip," said Kelly McBride, an ethics adviser at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. The most common advice in such cases is "report aggressively," she said, but "publish conservatively."
When the e-mails arrived, they were originally met with some skepticism since they could have been written by almost anyone, said a State reporter who helped break the story.
"It was an e-mail address based in the UK, but that doesn't mean they were sent from the UK," said John O'Connor, who covers politics for The State.
Despite attempts, the sender never responded to inquiries, O'Connor said, so the staff tried to verify the writings in other ways, all of which were fruitless. "We didn't sit on them, but we couldn't prove them," O'Connor said.
Confronting the governor directly was ruled out, he said, because of the fear of losing the potentially exclusive story they were holding; they thought they would have had to turn copies over to the governor or his staff for authenticity review.
Sanford's press office is savvy, he said, and reporters knew "if we didn't have the goods" they could lose the story.
Another fear was that if word got out that the e-mails existed, other media might start chasing after a story.
O'Connor said the staff worked the trail until they felt it went cold. Then "we kind of let them be for a while" as other events in state government took over. Then they were tipped about his flight from Argentina.
Other newspapers have faced similar hurdles in trying to solidify their stories about sex scandals. The Idaho Statesman had investigated U.S. Sen. Larry Craig's alleged homosexual encounters, but it took a public event before the paper felt comfortable enough to print what they'd assembled.
"In our case, the senator denied everything and we were in a 'he said-he said' situation," Vicki Gowler, executive editor, said in an e-mail to The Post and Courier. "We had no e-mails. We decided we would hold off until something would happen that would lend credibility to the senator — or to his accusers. His arrest did that."
McBride, of Poynter, said the shrinking size of newsrooms is probably going to affect the timetables for confirming and publishing these types of stories, since editors may be reluctant to throw entire news teams on what may be potential sex scandals.