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ASNE, Poynter put the spotlight on hard-edged reporting

SHOWCASE | June 24, 2005

Thirty-one publishers and chief editors, all committed to strong watchdog journalism, met to kick off a drive for better watchdog reporting, the theme for Rick Rodriguez's tenure as this year’s ASNE president.

By Barry Sussman



Since September 2004, the Sacramento Bee has been reporting on “Chief’s Disease,” a phenomenon in which ranking California Highway Patrol officers report coming down with disabilities toward the end of their careers, giving a nice, partially tax-free boost to their retirement income. In 2002, according to the Bee, 82 percent of officers who retired claimed a disability.


At one early point, a ranking highway patrol administrator told Bee reporters that he himself was not about to come down with Chief’s Disease when he retired. But an anonymous tipster said the administrator was planning to do just that, and Bee reporters were able to confirm it. Among the administrator’s problems: He had claimed injuries from falling out of his office chair, and from exercising on a stationary bicycle.


As the investigation continued, the Bee found similar, highly suspicious actions by leaders in other state agencies as well.


A question: My guess is, this is a problem that exists in lots of places. Worth looking into at your news organization, or not?


In the spring of 2003, the St. Petersburg Times decided to report in earnest on the achievement gap between white and black students. That sensitive subject was made a little easier to get into, given the hook of “No Child Left Behind” legislation. One of the findings: The graduation rate for black students in Pinellas County is 37 percent, or 30 percentage points below that for whites. Other findings were equally stunning. As one person described it, the reporting wasn’t too complicated: Just put down scores for whites, and subtract from them the scores for blacks. That was the easy part. Since then, citizens and officials have been meeting regularly and trying to deal with these tragic circumstances, prodding and holding the school district to account.


Question: Think you’ve got a similar situation in your school districts? Is there a more important area for watchdog reporting? Shouldn’t you be working on this?


These newspaper investigations and others were highlighted at a two-day conference on watchdog reporting sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Poynter Institute, at Poynter, from May 22nd  to May 24th. Attending were 31 newspaper publishers and chief editors, all committed to watchdog reporting, along with Poynter and ASNE staff, and a few other participants. I was one of them.


One of the best known newspaper investigations described at the meetings was that by the Chicago Tribune in 1999, a series titled “The Failure of the Death Penalty in Illinois.” The series resulted in the governor at the time, George Ryan, declaring a moratorium on executions and commuting the sentences of 167 Death Row inmates. The governor gave due credit to the Trib, which, in turn, has cited journalism students at Northwestern for an initial investigation that prompted the newspaper to follow up.


Perhaps there isn’t a Death Row scandal in your area. But the Tribune, according to one of its reports, “has examined almost every facet of the criminal justice system, doing groundbreaking work on false confessions…, life after exoneration and, most recently, forensic science.” Is your news organization up for that? Shouldn’t it be?


Before the Poynter sessions, I was familiar with the Tribune series but not the St. Pete or Sacramento articles. Yet there is little doubt stories like those, ones that go to the heart of watchdog reporting, exist elsewhere, and probably in lots of places. One editor at the meetings told me his paper was looking into similar allegations against high-ranking police officials in his community but that not only were his reporters not getting cooperation, they were being physically threatened as well.


So one point I’d like to make, arising from the conference, is that somebody, somewhere – possibly at ASNE – ought to gather and put on display any excellent watchdog pieces as they are written across the country. We do that to a limited extent on this Website. Investigative Reporters and Editors does it more thoroughly, on its Extra!Extra! online feature. ASNE executive editor Scott Bosley has expressed interest in the idea; in the meantime editors and reporters should be scouring news reports across the country on their own, looking for ideas that work. There’s a lot out there.


Pat Stith of the News & Observer

One of the most striking watchdog areas taken up at Poynter was computer assisted reporting, or CAR, as practiced and described by Pat Stith of the Raleigh News & Observer. “All over this country reporters who want to take their work to a higher level have been the driving force behind computer assisted reporting,” Stith said. “Other things being equal, reporters who can use a computer will defeat those who cannot. And not just defeat them – they’ll beat ‘em like a tub.”


Some examples: For stories on how hog farmers were writing their own rules in North Carolina, the News & Observer acquired almost all calls made with state telephones or state telephone credit cards over a two-year period – about 40 million records – and found, among other things, that on average someone in state government called one particular hog farmer “once every working hour of every working day during those two years.” The farm was like a satellite of the state government, Stith said, “or maybe it was the other way around.”


Acquiring a data base of trooper citations, the News & Observer showed that a 12-person drug interdiction unit was profiling black men. “When troopers in a unit stopped a black man but couldn’t find drugs, they would charge him with a seat belt violation or some other minor offense. We compared the sex and race of the motorists they cited for traffic offenses with citations written by other troopers and found that the drug unit was almost twice as likely to charge a black man with a minor offense. One member of the unit charged 27 minorities in a row, one white man, and then eight more minority drivers.”


Stith said there “are two widespread misconceptions about CAR: It takes forever. It’s just for projects.” He said CAR is “a lethal investigative weapon. But it is also a wonderful source of features. It’s a valuable tool for health and environmental reporters. And business. And cops. And sports.”


By now, I’m sure that what Stith has to say is old hat in most newsrooms. People in the business know the value of computer assisted reporting. But that doesn’t mean it’s being practiced well enough, or to the extent that Stith has in mind. (Links to Stith’s talk, and to most other seminar activities, are at the bottom of this article.)


Hersh, Bowden as keynoters

Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker magazine and Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down,” “Killing Pablo,” and other books, were keynote speakers, or, rather, keynoters interviewed by Poynter leaders. Hersh was asked about anonymous sources. His view – the only logical view to me – is that anonymous sources are necessary. “Bush and Cheney don’t care what we write, they are more secretive than ever, more hard to get to, more punitive to people who are perceived as saying something not on the team… Since Republicans control everything, there are no investigations into anything…We really have a different government here.”


At the same time, Hersh said he shares the names of his confidential sources with his editors and fact checkers. “I’ve never been out of control of my editors; they always know what I’m doing. And [sources] who deal with me have dealt with me for years. The New Yorker knows them, and I tell sources, ‘you have to understand – you have to talk to the fact-checkers.’”


Bowden, now a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, and previously a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, gave credit to a new realm of editors – emailers – who read his pieces online in the 1990s on the downing of an American helicopter in Somalia and took the trouble to offer corrections or improvements in areas where Bowden may have been slightly off base.


Bowden also presented a theory about what happens next for newspapers. While many predict their demise, Bowden holds it likely that bosses of newspaper chains will become dissatisfied when profits drop substantially, and will then start selling papers to local groups. Presto: end of a problem. But let’s not hold our breath.


The Poynter meetings were the kickoff for a watchdog reporting drive that is the focus of this year’s ASNE president, Rick Rodriguez, executive editor of the Sacramento Bee. ASNE executive director Bosley says some of the next steps will be seminars at various newspapers to be run in cooperation with the Investigative Reporters and Editors group and a related program on ethics and standards.


Next year’s president of ASNE, David Zeeck, executive editor of the Tacoma, Wash., News Tribune has pledged to continue the emphasis on watchdog reporting during his term. Who knows: Maybe this kind of journalism will be here to stay for a while.


The Poynter Institute has posted a good deal of the conference, either in the form of transcripts or, in the case of Hersh and Bowden, audio versions. Here’s the list; clicking will take users to the individual items:

Watchdog Culture: Why You Need it, How You Can Build it
Reports from the Poynter Institute.

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