Thursday, October 26, 2006

Good Election Coverage

You'll find some good stories on ballot issues and candidates at Montana Votes, a Web site professor John Saul and I have put together to feature good student work on the election.

The Seattle Times has an especially good profile today on the Burns-Tester race.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Resources on the Justice Beat

State and Local Resources

Montana law gives you access to:

Daily incident reports – They’re often skimpy and filled with code. But they’re a start.

Daily arrest reports – Name, DOB, charge.

Jail logs – Who’s in jail, arresting agency.

Other Local and State Web resources

Missoula Police Department

Missoula County Sheriff’s Department

Missoula County Detention Facility.

Montana’s court system. Find links to various branches and resources of Montana’s judicial system, from the state Supreme Court down to Municipal and Justice of the Peace courts.

Montana’s laws. It’s all here, but Title 45 is the state criminal code. You’ll find descriptions of different crimes and any sentencing guidelines.

Montana Supreme Court decisions. You can read them yourself.

Montana State Law Library. Look up old court decisions. Contacts here can help you research a case.

Montana Department of Justice. We elected a state attorney general, who acts as Montana’s top prosecutor. He also represents the state in lawsuits. His department covers everything from law enforcement and forensics (State Crime Lab) to gambling regulation. It also keeps state crime stats.

Montana Department of Corrections. Officials here track everyone convicted of felonies. They have databases of violent and sexual offenders and everyone currently in the state prison system.

Federal Resources

The U.S. Attorney for Montana. The federal Department of Justice picks a top prosecutor to handle federal crimes in every state.

Federal Criminal Code. Here are the crimes that could land you in U.S. District Court and the federal prison system

U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. Attorney General runs this huge department. It’s responsible for enforcing federal law.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. The federal government’s chief law enforcement agency. There are others: the Drug Enforcement Agency; the Border Patrol; Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Bureau of Indian Affairs, etc.

Federal courts in Montana. The U.S. District Court is the main trial court from crimes and civil suits in the federal system. But there are other federal courts: Federal Bankruptcy Court, U.S. Tax Court, etc.

Federal Prisons. If you’re convict of federal crimes, you go here.

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Appeals from U.S. District Court are heard here, in San Francisco.

U.S. Supreme Court. The high court, the court of last resort in the federal system.

Resources for Journalists

Covering Crime and Justice: A Guide for Journalists. Great primer on how to cover various aspects of the justice system. It’s written by top criminal justice reporters. A wonderful guide to resources on crime and justice issues.

Harmful Error: Investigating America’s Local Prosecutors. Here’s an example of reporting on the system itself. How well does it work?

The Innocence Project. Sometimes the system fails, as these folks know only too well.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hit the Campaign Trail

One way to get to know your candidate or subject is to tag along on a campaign trip. You'll get to see how well they handle the people, the pressure and the questions. For a good example of this kind of story, check out Gwen Florio's recent trip to the Hi-Line with Jon Tester.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

How to 'Truth Check' a Campaign Ad

Stories sifting fact from fantasy in campaign ads are becoming more frequent as checking them becomes easier to do. Here are some examples in print and broadcast.

Some pointers for doing your own 'Truth Check' story:

1. Insist that candidates provide sources to back up their advertising allegations. Most will. In fact, check the sponsor's Web site first. If they refuse to offer proof, you've got a story they're really going to hate.

2. Most often, candidates will point to their opponents' voting records. Look up the bills and votes yourself. Don't rely on their opponents' "spin."

If we're talking about state legislation, go to the Montana's Legislature's site. Click on "bills" for the right session. You can search by bill number, sponsor or general topic. It's easy to verify a vote or see what a bill would do, but often the bill's costs are the issue, so be sure to look at the "fiscal note," which is the state's best guess at costs for taxpapers.

If we're talking about federal legislation, go to the Library of Congress' Web site.

3. After you've seen the facts, bounce your finding off of both candidates or their people. You can include their reaction in your story. They may offer you more context or sources, too.

Some pitfalls:

1. Make sure you're reporting a candidate's final vote on the issue at hand. Legislators may vote many times on a single bill: at the committee stage, on amendments to a bill and finally on the bill as amended.

Here's an example: In 1997, state Sen. Mike Taylor initially voted to deregulate the wholesale price of electricity, a highly controversial idea in Montana. But he changed his mind on the third and final vote, making him one of the few Republicans to ultimately reject the idea. He's running this year for the state's Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

2. The questions legislators face are not always black and white. For example, a legislator could support a sale tax as an additional tax or as a substitue for eliminating or cutting other taxes. The effect on taxpayers could vary enormously.

3. Beware of singling out a lawmaker's vote as his or her only vote on some controversial issue. Often Democrats and Republicans will offer similar solutions to some problem. A Republican legislator who votes against a Democratic version may vote for his party's solution instead.

Friday, October 06, 2006

See How They Run

Here are the election assignments. If you want to switch with someone, I need to know quickly.

Amber – Karen Townsend, district judge’s race.
Karen – Dusty Deschamps, district judge’s race.
Emma – Jon Tester, U.S. Senate
Jessica – Conrad Burns, U.S. Senate
Oriana – Open-space bond issue, Missoula County
Colin – County charter, Missoula County
Patrick – Enforcement of marijuana offenses
Katie – Jean Curtiss, county commissioner
Leslie – Jim Edwards, county commissioner
Mike – Mike McMeekin, Missoula County sheriff
Alex – Don Mormon, Missoula County sheriff
Brian – Frenchtown schools bond issue
Dillon – Casey Gunter, justice of the peace
James – Karen Orzech, justice of the peace
Sean – Shrinking the City Council.
Miller – Nonpartisan City Council elections

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Covering Elections

Before the Election

POSTURING – Who’s thinking about re-election? Who’s considering a challenge?

FILING STORIES – Who are they? Why are they running? Who's behind them?

Covering the Campaign

SEE HOW THEY RUN – Events (picnics, appearances), debates and forums. What are they saying? Is it consistent? What aren’t they talking about?

SELLING THE CANDIDATE – What’s true? What’s misleading? What does it say about style and integrity? What kind of advertising works? Truth-in-advertising stories are more common these days.

FOLLOW THE MONEY & SUPPORT – Who's giving it and why? It’s an important gauge of strength in big races. In lesser races, it’s at least window into who’s supporting a candidate, which can be telling.

WHO ARE THESE PEOPE? – Good profiles take time, but they can give readers a peek into a candidate’s head and heart. What makes a candidate tick? What were his or her formative experiences? Who are their friends and enemies? How are they perceived?

THE POLLS – Beware. At best, they’re only snapshots of voters’ leanings. At worst, they’re campaign devices themselves. Who’s doing the poll? How are the questions phrased? What’s the margin of error?

THE ISSUES – What are they? What's at stake? Are the candidates talking about issues voters want discussed? Are they ducking others? Some news organizations sponsor town halls or focus groups to help guide their coverage.

OTHER FACTORS – What about those third-party candidates? What effect are bloggers having on the race? What steps are the parties taking to ensure that their supporters actually vote? Are their problems with registration?

Election Night

WINNERS AND LOSERS – Reaction? Difficulties in voting or counting the vote. Where will the candidates be? Got cell phones?

After the Vote

HOW DID THEY WIN? -- How did a candidate win? What part of the city, county or state gave him or her the margin of victory? What do candidates, voters, expert observers say were the factors?

FOLLOWING THROUTH – Are they making good on campaign promises? Are donors with vested interests getting special treatment?

More Election Resources

1. Missoula County Election Officials : You'll find sample ballots and voting rules. Go to their office at the county courthouse and you'll find campaign finance reports for legislative and local races. This is the place to be Election Night for results. After an election, you can find out who voted.

2. Secretary of State: Oversees state voting process. They publish an voters guide too.

3. Federal Campaign Cash and Donors: The Center For Responsive Politics` tracks donations in races for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Watch the dates, though. You could go straight to the Federal Election Commission too.

4. 527 Committees: These organizations produce advertising apart from the campaigns. The messages are clearly slanted , but they're careful not to tell you how to vote. An outfit called Source Watch tracks them. So does

5. State Campaign Contributions: Records for donation to statewide races and ballot issues are kept by Montana's commissioner for political practices. Nothing on-line yet.

6. Project Vote Smart: Lots of information here. You'll find candidate bios, links for campaign finance info, voting records, positions on issues. You'll need to verify this stuff, though.

Backgrounding Candidates: Who Are These People?

Before you interview your candidates, make sure you know something about them. You'll ask better questions. You won't get snowed quite so much. Here's some tips on researching a candidate's background.

1. Read all about them. Many candidates these days will include links to favorable news coverage on their Web sites. A better strategy is to newspaper archives or check with Lexis-Nexis or Newsbank. Look for clashes in d substance and style. Build your story around the differences.

2. Visit Project Vote Smart. You'll be glad you did. The nonprofit, nonpartisan site tracks all sorts of information about candidates. You'll find biographical details, links to how much money they've raised, their positions on major issues of the day, their voting records or better yet, how their voting records look to various special interest groups. Has your candidate voted with or against education most of the time? That sort of thing.

3. Check the candidates' Web sites (all serious candidates have them now). See if the information matches what you know to be true about them. See what the political blogs are saying. (Most of them are hightly partisan, so put them in context.)

4. Check the political advertising on How are the candidates portraying each other on television? It might be fun to ask them to react to the commercials. Which one bugs them the most? Is the tenor of the campaign nasty or civil? Are the commercials informative or vague and fluffy?

5. Check in the candidate's home counties to see if they've been convicted of a crime or the subject of lawsuits.

Only after you done these things should you site down and write a list of questions you'd like to ask your candidates. Craft them carefully. Make candidates response to specific points with specific answers.

If you've read the clips, you'll know that stuff cold. Toss in some odd but revealing questions such as "Who's your political role model?" or "What mistake have you learned the most from?" or "What's the one thing people would be surprised to know about you that hasn't been reported?" (Montana's Lee State Bureau reporters ask candidates what's the latest book they've read -- other than the Bible, of course.)