Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Is Justice Served?

Cops and courts writers face such a steady stream of daily stories that they sometimes overlook articles about how the justice system works. It's a rich field for enterprising journalists. For great story ideas, check out Covering Crime and Justice, a Web-site produced by some of the nation's top justice journalists and featuring basics of beat coverage and a great assortment of story ideas.

Another thing to keep in mind is your obligation to see that the system is fair. Sometimes cops and prosecutors go too far. Check out the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers for examples. The folks at Truth in Justice have some resources too.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Endorsements Assignment

Here's what I need from each candidate group by midnight Monday:

1. How much money has the candidate raised and spent as of Monday?
  • List the totals for each category. (You may have to add up the totals from a couple of reporting periods).
  • List the major donors (say $100 or more) and provide their city and occupation, if available.
2. List the organizations and prominent people ((Parties, business groups, etc.; mayor, other council members, politicians, etc.) who have endorsed them.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Resources on the Justice Beat

Missoula Police Department daily public reports
Checking these skimpy reports is a start. Look for more serious sounding events and those with A8 or A9, indicating they were serious enough for a report to be written. A good beat writer will also make daily calls, early in his or her shift, on routine sources, usually, detectives, to see what's new.

Missoula County jail roster
The public jail roster reflects charges listed at the time of booking. For the current status of the charges against an individual, contact the Missoula County attorney's office 258-3246. The roster can tip you off to arrests that didn't appear in the city public reports because they were made by other law enforcement agencies.

The Laws:

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Budget: It's About People, Not Numbers

By now, you should know that writing about public affairs is writing about people, not processes, not dry statistics or numbers. That goes for even the most number-driven story: budgets. The critical questions are the same as always:

  • Who wins?

  • Who loses?

  • Why?

  • Whose taxes are going up?

  • Whose services are being cut?
Once you understand the the answers, the trick it to write about them without getting lost in the numbers. One key is to use only the meaningful numbers and make comparisons that readers will easilty grasp. Here are some tips that might help.

One of the pitfalls in writing about spendig or taxes is making accurate comparisons over time. Because inflation eats a way at a dollar's buying power, you'll need to adjust for its impact. Here's a handy calculator that can help you do that.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Resources for Backgrounding Candidates

Ask for a résumé or CV. Smart candidates these days have Web sites and post résumés and other interesting stuff there. Ask them to help fill in any unexplained gap, and double-check items that sound unusual or too good to be true.


A. Education: You can’t get their grades, but you can confirm the dates they attended a school and degrees conferred. Be on the lookout for exaggeration.

B. Awards and honors: Check for publicity concerning such by contacting people or associations that confer them. Again, be on the lookout for exaggeration, especially in things they tout, as in a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.

■ You can verify claims of military service by checking
Poynteronline has a good tip sheet for military info.

C. Occupations: If there’s reason to be skeptical, check these directly. How long did they work there? What positions did they hold? How did they leave? Voluntarily? Check employer Web sites, association directories, etc.

D. News history: Check the archives of your local newspaper for mentions. Go back several years. Why were they in the news? (If they’ve moved here recently, check the paper where they used to live.) Always check Lexis-Nexis, Newsbank and other news databases.

E. Criminal and legal history: Check with the Clerk of District Court for felony charges or civil suits filed in Missoula County. Justice and Municipal courts have misdemeanors. You can check the state’s criminal history database, but it will cost you $11.50 per request. However, searching the state’s correctional offender network to locate people in prison is free. So are the state’s sexual/violent offender databases. You can get federal information though a database called PACER, but it costs. (I have an account.) Again, the Web is a good starting place.

F. Political/Public service history: Again, start with a basic Web/News search, but there are other databases, including minutes of government meetings and government directories. You can also check to see if they’ve given money to state or federal candidates. If you’re researching the voting record of a state or federal elected official, check with the good folks at Project Vote Smart.

G. Property and taxes: If they own property in Missoula County, you can look up its physical description, location and tax information. To see if they own property elsewhere in the state, check the Montana Department of Revenue’s Web locator.

H. Business records: If people own businesses, you can check to see what type they are and who represents them. Remember that incorporated businesses can own property, so search the property-tax databases for that information too.

I. Bankruptcy: Bankruptcies, in which individuals or businesses seek protection from their creditors, are filed in a special federal court. You can get this through PACER. The nearest U.S. Bankruptcy Court is in Butte.


For information about a Montana candidate’s past fund-raising, check the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices site. It can lead you to information about lobbyists, too. For information about groups running so-called issue advertisements (“527 groups”) , see

Covering the Candidates

Besides covering tonight's City Council meeting, I want you to file a photograph and a short biographical report on your council candiates this week.

Due by 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5 -- A jpeg. photo and biographical information on your candidate. Keep it short and answer the following:

Name and Ward (also indicate whether your candidate is an incumbent) :
Marital or domestic partnership status:
Education: (degree and major)
Professional and military experience:
Public service:
Party affiliation:

Due by class Monday, Oct. 8 --
  • Q&A (10 questions)

  • Background report