Monday, October 27, 2008

Issues for Justice Reporters

BEAT COVERAGE: Poynter, Power Reporting, Covering Crime and Justice

PROJECTS: Wrongful convictions, "Wasted in Wisconsin," Pro Publica, "Forensics Under the Microscope"

ETHICS: Covering Crime and Justice, At the Virginia Pilot; SPJ case studies

Local Justice Resources

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.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Learning about the Law

Here's a guide to Montana courts and answers to questions about the state's legal system. Here's a guide to legal words phrases. Here are some you need to know from the start:

-Actual malice, Affadavit, Answer, Appeal, Arraignment
-Bail/Bond, Bankruptcy, Beyond a reasonable doubt
-Circumstantial evidence, Class action suit, Complaint, Compensatory damages, Concurrent sentences, Consecutive sentences, Cross examination
-Damages, Defamation, Double jeopardy
-Grand jury
-Habeas corpus, Hung jury
-Indictment, Information
-Liability, Libel
-Parole, Plaintiff, Probation, Preliminary hearing, Preponderance of the evidence, Probable cause, Punitive damages
-Settlement, Statute of Limitations, Subpoena
-Voir dire

Friday, October 17, 2008

We're Going to Court Monday

That's right. Let's meet in the second-floor lobby of the Missoula County Courthouse at 2:15 sharp. We'll sit in on a Justice Court session, the honorable Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech presiding.

We'll report on a story for a midnight deadline, so bring your notebooks, recorders and pens. We'll also make a quick visit to the Clerk of District Court's office, the honorable Chris Arneson guiding.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Get Ready for Monday's Council Meeting

Take a look at the City Council’s agenda for tomorrow night. Remember, we’re covering stories, not meetings, so pick a couple issues that you think might be worthy of covering and be prepared to talk about them in class. In other words, do some background work.

Also, I’m changing the assignments for the week. Besides Monday’s council story, I’ll ask you to polish your candidate interview story, based on my comments. Be working on the story from your beat about the election, but we’ll make that due early next week.

See you in class.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Revealing Questions for Candidates

Here are some of my ideas. Add your own as comments.

1. Who are your heroes? Why?
2. Have you ever voted for someone in the other party? Who and why?
3. What advice does you spouse give you about campaigning?
4. How would you rate the press coverage in this campaign?
5. What's the strangest suggestion you've received from consituents?
6. What's the hardest job you've ever done?
7. What's the best book you've ever read?
8. What's the best advice you've ever been given?

Covering Elections: The Basics

Here's a list of things journalists should consider when they cover elections.

1. Background your candidates -- We've already talked about this, but it's important. Who are these folks? Who are their friends and supporters? Who is endorsing them? Who is giving them money? What's their history? Where do their private and public histories intersect?

2. Illuminate candidates' stands on the issues -- You'll get some of this by covering debates, forums, press confernces, speeches, etc. It's important not only to cover what they say, but to verify the accuracy of it. Track their comments on an issue over time to see if they changing the tune. Are they pandering to the crowd? What issues are they ignoring? Are voters' opinions on issues being solicited? In call of this, be sure to put the issues in context. How does this affect my readers?

3. Cover the "horse race" -- The press overdoes this, partly because it's easy, but it still matters. Pay attention to the polls (Are they credible? Valid statiscially?). What strategies and tactics are the candidates using? How effective is a candidate at organizing, raising money, etc. How is the electorate changing? How are registration and voting laws affecting the process? Look for oddities in the collection and counting of votes? Is the process fair?

Better Election Coverage

Some questions election reporters should ask themselves:

1. Are we covering the "horse race" (stories about polls, campaign tactics, personnel) at the expense of issues?
2. Are we asking questions voters care about?
3. Who is going uncovered?
4. What issues are going undebated?
5. Are we trying to get to the truth of campaign allegations?
6. Are we giving voters and candidates an opportunity to respond?

Good Election Fact-Checking Sites -- Another good site sponsored the St. Petersburg Tims and Congressinal Quarterly. Check out the "Truth-o-Meter" and the new "Flip-o-Meter." -- Probably the best all-around election fact-checking site. It succeds in being a nonpartisan resource that moves quickly to sift the truth from fiction from national campaigns.

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:

A. 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.

B. 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.

C. 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.