April 2001 Regional Reporter

Editors note: Some links and elements of this monthÝs newsletter may not be available due to an HTML editing problem. We hope to have it fixed shortly.

 

Investigate this: What makes an investigative story?

By Marc Heller
Watertown Daily Times

What makes an investigative story investigative? And how do you choose which investigations to pursue?

Those were the big questions at an April 3 seminar by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel on investigative reporting. The session didnÝt offer much practical advice (sorry), but it got reporters thinking about the choices they face in tackling big projects. Kovach is chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, and Rosenstiel is director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Kovach contends that an investigative story by definition has to have some moral wrong going on. If you can't prove something morally wrong has happened or is happening, itÝs not an investigative story and should be just straight news, he says. An investigative story does more than cast light on a subject, he says ˝ itÝs prosecutorial.

Some people in attendance had problems with the "moral wrong" theory, morality being a loaded term.

Most of seminar was devoted to a journalistic experiment. Participants broke into groups of three to six people and everyone was presented with the same list of several investigative stories. Each group had to decide on three to pursue and justify those choices.

An example: ThereÝs a charity in town that benefits kids, and someone with direct knowledge can prove the organization is spending hardly a drop on the kids the program's supposed to benefit.

But the newspaper's publisher is a big supporter of the organization. Another example: Local delis have a terrible problem with roaches. A councilman with mayoral ambitions can get the paper access to all kinds of records and even arrange a trip into some delis with city inspectors. He says records show a big increase in violations of the health codes.

And one more: The local bay is terribly polluted, the newspaper can prove through a study. In fact, the local fishing industry, already hurting, will dry up in 20 years.

Finally: A local cop is ready to give the newspaper information proving that the local police department practices racial profiling.

There were other examples, but in the practice, most of the groups discarded the roach story and decided to go after racial profiling and polluted water. The roach story sent up all kinds of red flags: an ambitious politician is the chief source, and if the city is catching violators, it seems the government's doing exactly what it's supposed to do != no real scandal there.

In the story on the charity, there was some disagreement about the publisher's role. If he or she is a great supporter of the group, does that mean the paper is more or less likely to do the story?

 

Several people pointed out that a group of television reporters might have viewed the situation differently. And with so many news outlets on the Internet and cable TV, sources can turn to another journalist or psuedo-journalist quickly if the first one takes time to think about whether to pursue the piece, Kovach and Rosenstiel said.

"Sources are gaining the upper hand,"' Rosenstiel said. "It's a sellerÝs market for information."

 

How much is your memberÝs mansion (or apartment)?

By Angela Greiling
Small Newspaper Group

There are times in life when one's nosiness and professional life collide.

I stumbled on one of those times recently when, in the middle of a house hunt, I found a handy feature on the Washington Post website that could also become a useful tool for regional reporters.

Home Price Reports, under the page's Real Estate link, is an interactive tool that allows users to look up property by address and by owner. The most obvious use for regional reporters would be to see where your Congress member/s live and how much they paid for their house, if it was purchased recently.

Of course, if your member is a renter, you're out of luck for this feature. The tool allows searches for recent property sales and for tax assessments, although older tax assessments often do not reflect the property's current value.

The search engine culls its results from two databases. The site's disclaimer says it has information for every residential property in the Washington area.

I have not used any information from my searches in a story, but I could see potential in profiles of members, especially newly elected people who have recently purchased property in the D.C. area.

The site cites its sources as real estate transfer and public assessment records that are varied by jurisdiction. For Washington, it uses the city's Office of the Chief Financial Officer and the Office of Tax and Revenue as well as Spatial Associates, a geographic information systems dealer in Baltimore.

The site's recent sales are updated once every month or two, depending on the locality. And the tax assessments are updated once or twice each year.

Of course, any reporter worth his salt knows real estate information is already available from city and county sources, but the Post's website makes it easily manageable. The one area of the city where the site can be confusing is the Capitol Hill neighborhood, which is where many Congress members live. Since Washington's four quadrants converge at the Capitol, the streets' directional monikers are vitally important to discerning where an address lies.

When looking up low-numbered Hill addresses, I had to sometimes type "SE G St." and sometimes "G St. NE."

While it is tempting to look up what one's friends and neighbors spent on their houses, the same can be said for knowing about the quarters of our elected officials. Combine the power of the Post feature with simple a simple mapping program such as is on the Yahoo! or Mapquest Web sites, and you can pinpoint where that senator lives.

I learned that Indiana's two senators live in well-appointed areas of the metropolitan area. Democrat Evan Bayh and his wife, Susan, paid just over $1 million in 1998 for their 10-room house in DC's Spring Valley neighborhood.

Republican Dick Lugar and his wife, Charlene, have owned their McLean home since 1977. At that time, they paid $154,500 for it.

While some of the search results further public opinion of Congress members living the good life in Washington, I also learned that plenty of members - even those who own their homes here - live much more modestly.

 

Meeting minutes ˝ March 5, 2001

Present: Carl Weiser, Jake Thompson, Angela Greiling, Jeff Miller, Maureen Groppe, Rachel Smolkin, Lita Baldor, Marc Heller.

Weiser began the meeting with a discussion of the RRA newsletter, perpetually late in publication. He asked if the board would be willing to publish two quick 4-page newsletters to get ahead of schedule, so that by April, articles are being submitted for the May newsletter. The board decided by consensus to do so.

The board had a general discussion about the status of the newsletter. Baldor said it has become too big, making it harder to publish on time. Weiser noted that he has supported putting the newsletter solely online, but the board has indicated a wish to keep putting it on paper.

Board members discussed a few story ideas for the next newsletter, including how to check the net worth of lawmakers after the recent decline in the stock market.

Groppe gave the treasurer's report. RRA has collected more than $2,000 in dues for 2001, ahead of last year's pace of $1,700 by April, she said. Collections have gone well at RRA events, and with regular e-mails from RRA, members feel like they are getting something for their membership, she said.

 

PresidentÝs Report

 

By Carl Weiser

Ask yourself: Am I writing the best story?

Maybe you're writing about the local mayor testifying at a congressional hearing, or a new bill introduced by your local congressman, or the debate over the tax cut.

Stop. Think. And ask yourself: Is this the best story I could be writing? Am I writing the right story for the readers back home? Am I giving them the information they need and the fullest truth?

That was the message from two National Press Club sessions, also open to RRA members, on "Deciding What to Cover in Washington and How to Make It Engaging." I attended one of the sessions, put on by the Committee of Concerned Journalists' Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.

"People don't care about the committee. People don't care about the bill. People care about how the bill might affect their lives," said Kovach.

Part of the difficulties of being a Washington reporter these days was demonstrated by the results of a focus group poll, from a real (though unidentified) newspaper, which showed that readers believed the news report was dull and predictable. The vast majority of readers said they skipped Washington news, even tax cut stories, looking for features, pop culture stories, or "interpretative stories."

So how should we as Washington reporters react to such results, which are probably typical of your readers back home?

We have to ask ourselves, why is this story important? Who is the audience for this story, and what do they need to know to make up their own minds?

Some suggestions:

Plan way ahead. Ask yourself where a story will be a month from now? Start work now for the "House vote" story, so it's not just a straight , "backers said this, opponents said that."

Tap those think tanks. They know a lot. And you can, through e-mail, tap more far flung think tanks in Canada or South America or Europe. Lobbyists can help you find local folks affected by a bill or a regulation.

Ask if there are more than just two sides to the story. Most debates have a spectrum of views.

Explain why things are happening in Washington. We've come to accept peculiarities in how things get done here that most Americans might findtroubling or amusing.

Bring people to life. Who is the lobbyist or chief proponent, and why does he care so much?

Get inside your congressman's life and tell your readers what they're like as people - what music they listen to, if they use e-mail, and personal quirks.

Keep it simple.

As an example of how to do a story, we used the bankruptcy reform bill. One basic question asked by a reporter who hadn't covered the story != what exactly is bankruptcy? What does it mean to declare bankruptcy? Sometimes the best story form might even be a Q & A. We also figured it would be a good idea to call local bankruptcy attorneys and see if they could find us a real person to use as a case study.

This may sound time consuming. And your editors may be pinheads who just want dailies about your delegation's press conferences. But most editors are willing to take a better story if you offer it to them. And I hope these tips lead to better stories.

Web watch

(NOTE: LINKS ARE temporarily unavailable due to an HTML editing problem)

Dont be fooled into thinking that tax cuts are the only thing the new president cares about. Years ago != or maybe it just seems that way != Dubya mentioned something about education being his top priority. If the education beat is unfamiliar territory, it doesnt have to be. Before you go to the Hill (or better yet, interview a teacher), you can get background on the Web about any education topic. The links go on forever.

http://www.accesseric.org/

The Education Resources Information Center is a massive clearinghouse on educational research.

http://www.ewa.org/infocenter/resources/

A list of sources and links from the Education Writers Association.

http://www.edweek.com/context/states/

Besides being a great source on education stories, Edweeks online addition has useful state education information. Bookmark your states page and youll have fast access to critical state education links, statistical thumbnails and Edweeks free archive of news about your state.

http://www.ecs.org/

The Education Commission of the States is another good place to start researching issues. Its a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping state policy makers improve learning.

http://www.ed.gov/Programs/EROD/

Know what agency handles literacy programs in your state? The Education Resource Organizations Directory can tell you that and much more. Fast.

-- Jeff Miller, Allentown Morning Call

 


February 2001 Regional Reporter

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