On my last lesson today, I want to guide you through some techniques and websites that you can help you make better use of the Internet. I have attached Barbara Gray’s lesson plan for this session as a Google Doc, so that you can take advantage of some sites that we might not have time to discuss.
First we’re going to discuss Google. We’ll briefly discuss: 1) Advance search techniques, such as site specific searches and the use of “cache”; 2) Google Books; and 3) Google Reader. Then we’ll discuss some sites that are free “deep web” sites: 1) “The Wayback Machine,” which I have found helpful sometimes when I have experienced “link rot”; 2) Opensecrets.org, which is an invaluable tool to research the influence of money in politics, as evidenced by this recent work at ProPublica; and 3) a collection of resources at the E-Journals & Reference Database, which is part of your tuition here at CUNY.
Today’s lesson will provide you an introduction to fact-checking your work. Nothing will be more important to your career as a journalist than your credibility. The time you devote to verifying your work prior to publication can save you from unnecessary embarrassment and grief.
You have five minutes to complete the following drill. You may use the Internet to do your research. Then, we’ll briefly discuss what you found and how you found it.
After the drill, we’re going to look first at some prominent errors that found their way into major publications. We will draw on three cases from the New York Times: stories involving Margaret Seltzer and Amorita Randall, as well as an Alessandra Stanley appraisal of Walter Cronkite’s life in The New York Times. We’ll consider how errors in these stories could happen.
The cases of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair reveal that deception can also come from within a newsroom, and not just from a reporter’s sources. We’ll briefly consider the story of a star reporter for USA Today who lost his job when some details of his pieces proved unverifiable. We’ll also look closely at corrections for a David Foster Wallace piece for The New York Times and an Edgar Martins photo essay for the Times’ magazine.
Then, we’re going to discuss some practical ideas for how you can avoid making such mistakes. We’ll discuss the process of fact-checking yourself or other people—and the necessity of looking at text with a fact-checker’s eye. We’ll show you how an error in a cartoon in The New Yorker reminds you never to take anything for granted. Here is a helpful tip sheet for keeping your facts straight.
Sarah Harrison Smith’s book, The Fact Checker’s Bible, provides the following list of things you should check before submitting a piece: proper names; place names; references to time, date and season; quotations; and arguments or narrative that depend on fact.
Common errors include: numbers and statistics (look out for errors between “billions” and “millions”); names of people, titles, locations; ages; historical facts; superlatives like “only,” “first” and “most”; and dates. Numerous problems have often come from one-source stories.
So be vigilant! Use primary sources! Make sure when you finish a piece that you feel you could defend your reporting to the most skeptical eye. If you do, your work can be a source of pride—and garner the respect of critics and supporters alike.
Today, we’re lucky to have the talented New York Times journalist John Eligon with us.
We’ll discuss how John built his career. We’ll also examine several of his stories: a powerful piece on Yiskar Caceres, a young man of promise whose drug arrests “contrasted with school transcripts, friends’ praise, and family life”; an intricate investigation into the practices of bail bondsmen; a look into the failure of state boxing commissions to enforce pre-fight health standards for boxers; a piece about alcohol and memory, written in the context of the recent rape trial of a New York police officer; a piece on the verdict against the son of Brooke Astor, who had been accused on a variety of fraud and conspiracy charges; a piece on the verdict from the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case; and lastly, a look at the exoneration of prisoners without DNA evidence.
Barbara Gray’s research page on accessing court records is here. We’ll discuss court research at greater length in the future. Be sure to ask me if you have questions in the meantime.
Crime and Cops
Today’s lesson will point you to some resources and strategies to help you write about crime and the police. I hope you will make good use throughout the semester of Barbara Gray’s topic pages, which provide a wealth of valuable links for your research. Her useful page devoted to crime and cops is here. One excellent example of crime reporting was Joseph Goldstein’s piece last Sunday in the New York Times about casting men for police lineups.
We will talk a little bit about how you might cover a breaking crime story in New York City. We’ll become familiar with the NYPD’s press relations office. A DCPI Action sheet might look like this:
“Subject: 006 Pct- Investigate DOA
On Thursday December 9, 2010 at approximately 0257 hours police responded to a 911 call of an aided female inside of 29 9th Avenue (SoHo House hotel) in the confines of the 6th Pct. Upon arrival, police observed a F/W/33 inside of a bathtub unconscious and unresponsive. EMS responded and pronounced the female DOA. Medical Examiner to determine cause of death. The investigation is ongoing.
The identification of the female is pending proper family notification.”
For additional information, you might contact the community affairs officer at your precinct and report at the location provided for more information. If you are working for a major news organization in the city, they will generally have an in-house press person with the NYPD or have access to the press wire. A story that began from the DCPI sheet above is here.
To understand the work of the police in your CD, one of the best things you can do is apply for the civilian observer ride-along program. It also helps to build a trusting relationship with the community-affairs officer. Attending the precinct community council meetings will also give you a sense of the dynamic between the police and the local community, and the area’s particular challenges.
I’ll also you point you to some resources for New York City crime statistics, to find future court appearance dates for criminal cases you may be covering, perform a ($65, ugh) criminal history record search for New York State (a national criminal history search is not available to journalists), access the nationwide sex offender database, and find the location of an inmate in New York State. We will discuss briefly the challenges you could face if you want to correspond with or interview an inmate; such a decision should never be taken lightly. I also want to iterate that everyone is innocent until proven guilty—and that for both legal and personal reasons you need to be very careful never to overstate what you know when writing about alleged criminal acts.
When writing about crime, look for the story behind the headline or the statistic. Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven is in one sense the story of a brutal murder carried out in God’s name; in a larger sense, the book is a skeptical inquiry into religious faith. Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness includes a section on a man who receives a life sentence for a marijuana-dealing conviction as a consequence of “three-strikes-you’re-out” laws. Sheri Fink’s Pulitzer-Prize winning story on life-and-death decisions at a New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina uncovers evidence of euthanasia by doctors working in unspeakably difficult circumstances—and asks useful questions about what the responsibilities of doctors should be when confronted with similar disasters. In each of these three cases, the author goes deeper than what was publicly reported, and he or she uses a particular story to illuminate broader issues of justice.
Finding the right people
Today we’re going to talk about the process of finding the right people to populate your stories. I’ll want to talk to you first about your experiences talking to families for your KIA pieces, and any challenges you faced.
Scenario 1: You have the name of a person you want to reach—or the address where an incident took place. We are going to practice looking up people with 411.com and Anywho.com. We’ll discuss how to look up residential listings, businesses, and reverse lookup a phone number that has called you.
Scenario 2: You need an academic or a policy expert who can speak knowledgeably about something. Several resources for finding experts are available through our Research Center wiki here. We’ll briefly tour some of them. I often use Google Books to help locate people with expertise; we’ll discuss how. Then we’ll discuss how we might find an expert using a news search and the search command “w/5 (professor or expert or author or historian)” in Nexis. We’ll follow with a quick practice session. We’ll also discuss how to reach people in government, and what strategies will be most successful in securing an interview.
Scenario 3: You have the broader story idea but you don’t yet have the people to populate it. We’ll discuss ideas you have for stories, and explore ways of finding. If you haven’t already, take the time to listen to This American Life’s award-winning episode, “The Giant Pool of Money,” to see how well-chosen characters can make your stories memorable. So many of your stories will also come indirectly from being a good listener and building relationships with people; I’ll discuss how I developed these two pieces for the Times.
One takeaway from today: Sources are often more willing to talk to you if they are contacted first from within their own circle of trust. A good case study is Robert Worth’s New York Times piece, “Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?” The Yemeni tribesman who provides the remarkable details at the beginning of the piece was contacted through his employer and friend in Sana. In two stories I wrote that involved disability, I was also able to gain access to the characters in the story only through introductions by others who knew and trusted me.
To finish, we’ll discuss any early barriers you’ve faced in gaining access to sources—as well as any questions you may have.
“Visible News, Invisible Stories”
Kenneth Chirstensen’s excellent idea in yesterday’s Daybook to cover the day of Chris Hoeppner, the overlooked socialist candidate in the Ninth Congressional District, reminds me of the “gravedigger” theory of journalism. It is named after Jimmy Breslin’s famous piece where he made the choice on the day of John F. Kennedy’s funeral to go to Arlington Cemetery and tell the story of the man who dug the former president’s grave. Breslin’s column for the Daily News is more moving than conventional accounts of that day.
This smart piece from Poynter, “Visible News, Invisible Stories,” can give you some inspiration as you seek to find stories outside of the traditional headlines.
Nexis research and people finding
Today, we’re going to practice using Nexis. I am also going to guide you through some tools for finding phone numbers and addresses for people.
The LexisNexis database of 5 billion searchable documents is going to be an important part of your research arsenal. A colleague of CUNY research professor Barbara Gray at the New York Times has aptly called it “the rich man’s Google.” We’re not going to try to learn everything you can do with Nexis today. I just want to make sure you are solidly grounded in the basics of searching news articles.
I want you to leave today being able to do two main things on Nexis: 1) search for articles during a limited time period, either by topic or by byline; and 2) find specific information about a particular figure or topic while not drowning in a sea of extraneous articles. Here is a link to today’s lecture notes, in case they can be a useful reference.
After we walk through some specific search terms on Nexis, you are going to complete an in-class exercise here.
Secondly, I’m going to guide you through two tools that are helpful for locating the addresses and phone numbers of people. One is Spokeo, which is available to you through a password that I’ll send separately, and the other is the Nexis person locator. The person locator is not available through your Nexis Academic account, but you can access this powerful tool through Barbara Gray in the research library.
Blank Pitch Form
This blank form can be appropriated to provide a structure for your pitch. Reference Tim Harper’s completed sample in the previous post.
Your name and date
Date/time to be filed
Main elements of the story
And so on, as necessary…
Prospective nut graf (including all the main elements above)
Sources/research already contacted
Sources/research to be added
Possible reasons this story could fall through
Possible target markets for this story