Montana Public Radio

How Tips Are Transformed Into Stories

Apr 23, 2021

Public radio journalist Nate Hegyi got a huge scoop when he broke the story of Gov. Greg Gianforte's trapping and killing of a collared Yellowstone wolf without following all the legal requirements. Nate is our guest this week talking about hot tips, unanswered questions and what he learned from a 900-mile bike trip through the Mountain West.

Listen now on Parsing the Press with Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio.

Sally Mauk One of the biggest stories of recent months was the news that Gov. Greg Gianforte had trapped and killed a collared Yellowstone wolf, and been cited for not taking a trapping education course required for a wolf permit.

Nate Hegyi is the reporter who broke the story. Nate is based in Montana and is with a regional public radio consortium known as the Mountain West News Bureau. Nate's podcast, Across the Great Divide, recently won the Daniel Schorr Journalism Prize.

Nate is our guest today and Nate, I want to start by revisiting how you got the scoop on the governor's wolf kill. I assume you got a hot tip.

Nate Hegyi I did get a hot tip, and I promised the person who gave me that hot tip that I would never reveal who they were. And so I'm going to keep that promise. But I can say that I got a good tip from someone who I trust.

Well when I first got it, I was like, 'No way. That can't be real. That's ridiculous.' So I started, you know, making some inquiries into the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, checking in on a couple of things.

And then the spokesperson for FWP, probably a couple of days after I got the initial tip, confirmed that Gianforte had, in fact, trapped and killed a wolf near the boundary of Yellowstone National Park, and that when he did so, he had broke state hunting regulations by not taking a required wolf trapping certification course beforehand.

Gwen Florio Reporters get tips all the time, frequently anonymous. Can you explain to listeners how you go about verifying that information and ensuring that it's credible?

Hegyi As you said, we get tips all the time. Sometimes they're anonymous; sometimes they're from, you know, environmental groups, things like that; sometimes they're from opposing political parties, right, trying to dig up dirt and then get that dirt fed through a newspaper or public radio or something else like that.

And so you can't take what some tipper says at face value. You have to thoroughly fact check it. If you get some documents, let's say, you have to ensure that those documents are real and they're not forged.

You have to verify with agencies. Like in my case, I verified all the information I got with FWP and then once FWP confirmed that Gianforte had, in fact, trapped and shot a wolf near the Park without the required certification class to do so, then I felt like I was on solid ground to be able to continue reporting on this story.

And so every time you get something, you have to verify it through multiple sources.

Mauk Nate, there are still some unanswered questions about the governor's wolf kill. What are the questions you still have, and what have you done to try to get the answers?

Hegyi There were a couple of unanswered questions I had, including I think the biggest one is, was the governor lucky?

When he showed up to the ranch on that Monday — which was a federal holiday — was he just there, got to the trap and, hey, sure enough, you've set your traps for two months but that was the day that the wolf was there. He captured it and shot it.

Or did the ranch manager find the wolf, give the governor a call and say, "Hey, our traps caught a wolf. Why don't you drive down here and you can shoot it?"

If that happened, that would be illegal, and so it's really, really hard to verify what exactly happened. What you're doing is you're taking the governor's word essentially for what happened because it's private land.

You know, we've tracked his flight patterns — obviously, he has a private jet. That hasn't been much help. Can't exactly track, you know, the governor's cell phone or things like that. I think that would be almost illegal. So that's probably the biggest unanswered question, and it's really, really hard to verify.

Mauk You did ask the governor directly if that was the case, that he is the one who came upon the wolf in the trap and not someone else?

Hegyi I have asked all of those questions to the governor's press office and none of them were answered. He did not respond to my request for comment.

He could have talked about it at the press conference with other journalists. That's where he said that he came across the animal and shot and killed it. That was during a press conference. So the governor says that's what happened. It's really tough to verify if that actually did happen,

Mauk Gwen, newsmakers aren't generally going to volunteer information they think reflects poorly on them or [will] cause them headaches, and clearly, we as reporters can't make them talk. But public pressure can if there's enough outcry about something.

Florio Frequently when you put out a story like this with unanswered questions, just the public scrutiny will force someone to answer those questions. That's not happening now.

Can you talk about transparency, not just in this administration, but in general? I think I've seen you quoted saying there's less of it these days and I'd like your thoughts on that.

Hegyi Yeah, I was frustrated because I wanted answers to questions from Gianforte's office — clarification on a few things — and outside of a statement that was given to me, I wasn't given those answers.

There was then a press conference that I wasn't invited to, and then after the press conference, Gianforte spokesperson said I should have been at the press conference that I wasn't invited to. And so that's not strange to me, because I've worked as a journalist under the Trump administration and I'm very used to being rebuffed and ignored by the powers that be.

Talking with my colleagues who have been in the game for a lot longer, it seems to have changed a lot over the past few years in terms of agencies getting more and more secretive and more and more just kind of pushing you aside and not taking you seriously as a journalist and taking your questions seriously.

And I've noticed that in the Biden administration as well, with certain agencies that I'm currently talking to — just a general kind of rebuffing and not giving you documents, information in a timely manner.

So yeah, it's extremely frustrating and it does lead to a feeling of like you're throwing rocks at a big iron wall and trying to chip off little pieces of paint and getting documents and shedding a little bit of light on what's happening with bureaucracy these days.

Mauk I can confirm that it has changed, that the access, I think, is more limited, maybe more limited than it's ever been.

Nate, congratulations on the Schorr Prize, which you won for your podcast last summer when you bicycled 900 miles through the Mountain West to talk to a diverse bunch of people living in mostly rural areas. I'm wondering what your biggest takeaway is from that trip.

Hegyi It was polarization — that the political divide had seeped into small towns and rural communities, exacerbated by the pandemic. The number of people that were openly concerned about some sort of violent civil war or revolution or something like that was very surprising to me, especially when you're going through tiny towns like Leadore, Idaho, or Dubois, Wyoming. So that was probably my biggest takeaway.

Florio Nate, you said that by the end of the trip, though, despite that polarization, it made you get excited about America again. Why is that?

Hegyi That's a great question. I guess because it's now been, what, six months since I — since I was on the the ride, had a lot of things have happened, including the January 6th insurrection.

It made me excited because I think we work really well at a community level for the most part, and we work really well locally. The pandemic really strained that a lot. I think there was moments — and there probably still are — where even neighbor vs neighbor, there's a frustration especially we're all kind of just glued on to our computers and we're not interacting face to face.

But I think we can learn a lot from small towns and people kind of coming together to solve simple problems. Like there's a snowstorm that happens and even though you might really despise your neighbor, you still get out there and you help them shovel their driveway and you pull their truck out of a ditch if they get stuck.

You know, it's like as one person said, it's just one big dysfunctional family that you've got each other's backs when the chips are down. And so that's the thing that gives me hope about this country, is that I hope that when the chips are down we have each other's back.

But again, the pandemic kind of strained that. So I don't know, maybe I'm less hopeful than I was when I was on a bike, you know, riding 40, 50 miles a day and actually talking to people.

Mauk Well, it's an excellent podcast and excellent listen, and Nate and Gwen, thank you so much. Talk to you soon.

Florio Thanks Sally.

Hegyi Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Do you have a comment or suggestion for a future show? Contact Sally Mauk at sally.mauk@mtpr.org.

Parsing the Press is a weekly look at how the news is reported, featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and Montana Public Radio's Sally Mauk. Listen on MTPR Fridays at 7:50 a.m., or find it wherever you get your podcasts.