Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Getting lost in your investigation?

When you talk to many sources you collect so much information you can get lost in it.

Try diagram
ming your notes.

Each source you talk to only sees a small piece of the big picture. You get a sense of the big reality by connecting all these small pieces.

helps to draw a circle for each piece of information and connecting them together.

You can do this on your computer and share it among your team members with a free online tool bubbl.us.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Investigate your school

That's the advice from investigative reporters who cover higher education.

Here's some tips on what to ask and look for:

  • All emails sent to your college president or athletic director. That will tell you about all the problems people complain about.
  • All public records of academic misconduct -- ask for every case for the last five years.
  • A list of all public records requests. If lawyers are snooping for information because someone is thinking about suing, you will be able to get the same information.
  • Sponsored research contracts: If you are at a public university and the professors do research using any outside funding, you can get a copy of the funding agreement -- what the money is to be used for, who is doing the funding and what, if anything, the funder gets in return.
  • The Form 990: That's a form all non-profit private colleges must file with the IRS each year. They must also release it to the public upon request. On it they disclose how much they raise and spend, the people who are paid the most money, and all kinds of other nifty information. You can download a blank one for the year 2008 here. You can also get old Form 990s that your school filed at Guidestar. The service is free but you need to register.
  • The athletics budget: Athletics at your school is probably subsidized. You can find out where the money is coming from (student fees?) and how it is spent.
  • Retention rates: How many freshmen made it to sophomore year?
  • Six-year graduation rates: Compare it against other schools in your system or state.
  • Data from entrance and exit interviews: Many colleges interview students when they enter or graduate. You can find out what the school learns from these interviews.
And see if you can find phantom classes. Those are classes with high enrollment but no attendance that are designed to boost GPAs of athletes. When you try to visit you just get an empty class and there is no field trip of record.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Great ideas from the IRE conference in Baltimore

I'm at the yearly gathering of Investigative Reporters & Editors and am going to report to you some of great ideas for student journalists that I'm getting here.

First Off: Use maps and timelines to report your story not just to present it to readers.

That's the advice from Washington Post Sarah Cohen. She's the author of the book Numbers in the Newsroom which is a great guide for the math-challenged.

She said that more of us in journalism are mapping out information in our stories, but only towards the end of the information gathering process and only as a way to help explain the story to readers.

Instead, she said, map out your information as you get it, in the very beginning of your investigation. Why?

It will help you see where you physically need to go to report the story. Exactly where something happened and where it is still

It can help you spot trends.

The same goes for timelines. "A chronology and a timeline is a great reporting tool," she said.

She gave this example: By getting the calendar for Tom Ridge, when he headed the Department of Homeland Security, Washington Post reporters realized how little he worked. They color-coded days he was away on political trips and days he didn't work a full eight hours.

When using visual tools like a map or timeline for investigating rather than presenting information to readers, it doesn't have to be pretty.

BUT... Be careful when deciding whether to publish the map or timeline you used as a reporting tool. You need to take the same care in publishing the visual elements as you would for scribbles in your notebook. Is the information accurate? Is it truthful? Can you tell the difference? Did it come from reputable, verifiable sources?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

About the Center for Campus Investigations

The Center for Campus Investigations was founded at Humboldt State University in 2007 as a place on the Internet geared to encouraging investigative reporting at the college level. Its mission is to give advice to student journalists and highlight and share investigative projects done by student journalists.

You can find us online at http://campusinvestigations.org

Monday, June 1, 2009

Think about partnering

You don't have to do an investigation alone. Think about teaming up with your student radio or TV station or other publications or student organizations on campus. Or consider whether your idea for an investigation would be relevant at other colleges and universities. If so, contact their student newspapers and see if they want to partner with you on an investigation. That's called Distributed Reporting.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Now that the school year is over...

Think about that investigative story you didn't get a chance to do. This is the time to plan out a project for your student paper for next term.

Here's what you can do over the summer:

1. File those public records requests

If your school is a publicly-funded university or college it is subject to public records laws. That means that you are entitled to just about any document the administration creates as long as releasing it won't identify individual students or violate personnel privacy laws. You could be entitled to such things as your university president's e-mails and his expense reports. For more information check out the National Freedom of Information Coalition. It has a briefing for the laws for each state. Also the Student Press Law Center has a great letter generator that will give you a boiler plate public records request letter to print out according to your state's law.

2. Develop the premise:
Start with a question that can’t be answered without significant reporting.

3. Do your preliminary research:
You don't have to wait for next year to surf the Internet for basic information, do news background searches using the databases you'll find on your university library website, or compiling lists of people to interview once school starts.

4. Assess the do-ability: You need to ask yourself a series of questions:
  • What key pieces of information will I need, where can I get them, how difficult will they be to obtain and how long will that take?
  • Will I have access to the people essential to the story?
  • Will I need to travel far to get information?
  • Does my story depend on granting anonymity and will that affect whether I can get the story published?
  • Do I have the nerve to ask difficult questions?
  • If my story depends on pouring through reports, do I have the time and patience to do that?
  • Will I be able to analyze the data?
  • Will the story depend on someone giving you secret information?
  • Will my editors give me the space necessary to tell the story?
  • Will I have to spend time with people in a setting that makes me uncomfortable
5. Visualize your story: Try to design a package based on subtopics. Think of alternate ways to tell your story, such as through maps, Q&A interviews, timelines, video, illustrations and photographs.

6. Put together your I-Team: Who else on your paper would be interested in participating in an investigative project? What will their roles be? Recruit a graphic designer and videographer.

7. Get advice. You can find me on Facebook.
I'll help you plan out your project. Or I can hook you up with an investigative journalist closer to where you live who would be willing to work with you. Or email the folks at IRE.org. They love helping out student investigative reporters.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Don't forget the News Angle

Great ideas for investigative stories don't always involve something new. Sometimes the best investigative stories come about when a reporter decides to expose a long-standing problem that people have chosen to ignore.

But it is difficult to sell an investigative idea to an editor without a news angle. And without a good one, you won't get good play for your story on your organization's web site or paper edition.

So as you gather your information keep an eye and ear out for any and all news angles. If someone mentions an upcoming meeting on the topic jot that down. That's a news angle. If there is a proposed change to legislation in the works, take note. That's a news angle. When someone gets hired or fired, that can be a news angle.