Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Reporting in the Line of Fire

For more about reporters at risk, see The Committee to Protect Journalists.

'So How Do You Know That?'

That's one of the best questions a public affairs reporter can ask.

Comparing what your hear with the vast knowlege in your head is the crucial next step. Does that make sense? Does it add up?

A little math can help. Here's a basic online primer with examples from today's discussion.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

On the Record: There's Truth in Public Documents

The key is knowing where to look. The Society of Professional Journalists has put together a great guide to help you figure out what to look for in public records, where to find them and how to persuade record keepers to turn them over.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Civil suits can make great stories

They really do. Honest. They tell you who's doing shoddy work, who's not keeping promises -- how people are treating one another. If you really want to know what's going on in a community, check out who's suing whom.

Beware, however. Until a judge or jury decides the question, lawsuits are just one-sided allegations, so be fair. Talk to both sides.

Here's a sample civil suit. They usually spell out what the person suing (the PLAINTIFF) is upset about and what he or she or it (a government or corporation) wants the defendant to do about.

Here are two versions of stories written about the sample suit. Look at how careful the writers are to get the other side and to attribute the information.

Tips for Backgrounding Court Cases

  1. Check the web for stories, but don't use anything that you don't verify independently.

  2. See if your guy has a history. Conweb can help with those convicted of felonies in Montana.

  3. The county's jail roster lists people being held pending the outcome of their cases.

  4. Get the records. You can look up felony records at the clerk of district court's office. You can check misdemeanor records with the clerks in lower courts: Justice Court for Missoula County cases, Municipal Court for city of Missoula cases.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Next Week's Beat Assignment: Go to Court

Congrats. You've all been assigned to the courts beat for the week of Oct 11-15. Your task: Sit in on a session of Justice Court or a District Court law and motion session and dig up a story. The story will be due by midnight of the day you choose to go to court. I accept any stories after midnight Thursday.

Justice Court criminal sessions are held every day and run from about 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. You'll see people making their first appearance on all sorts of charges, most of them minor ones. The accused won't say much and the process consists of having the judge tell them about the charges and arranging for bail. If you see a case that intrigues you, go to the Justice Court clerk and ask for a copy of the charges and the affidavit. And then write it up.

District Court law and motion sessions are scheduled for different judges on different days. Check the schedule a day or so before you go and do a little records homework. By the way, I see that Judges Deschamps (yep, same family) and Harkin are holding their sessions Tuesday. The other two judges are taking the week off. Sorry. Look for a sentencing or an arraignment. Remember that they only do felonies in District Court.

What's newsworthy? Serious crimes, obviously. Minor crimes involving interesting circumstances could make news, too.

Local Resources for the Justice Beat

Law Enforcement




Wednesday, October 06, 2010

We're moving from local government coverage to the justice beat. You'll need to learn some new jargon so that you can translate this stuff for a reasonable reader.

Here's a link to a glossary of legal terms that should help.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

This week's deadlines

You've got a beat story due no later than midnight Saturday this week.

Breaking news (stories about timely events like crimes, disasters, court actions, debates, key decisions) need to be filed by midnight of the day they happen. That's the nature of breaking news.

Less timely news features (trends, profiles and behind-the-scenes looks at people or issues on your beat) are due later in the week.

Be mindful of the competition. It pays to be first in this business.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Covering City Hall

We're off to meet the Missoula City Council tonight. The show starts at 7 p.m., so get there early and grab a seat on the aisle leading from the door to the speaker's stand. The council chambers are at 140 W. Pine St., next to Sean Kelly's.

Your stories are due by midnight tonight.

By now you should have read the council's agenda and the city's argument for the special tax districts that are up for discussion tonight. Missoulian reporter Keila Szpaller previewed tonight's action in this morning's paper. You'd be smart to give her story a read.

We'll prepare for tonight's work in class. But here's some style information you might find useful.

The Missoula City Council - That's its name, so capitalize it the first time you use it. You can refer it the council (lowercase) after that.

Titles - Formal titles like mayor and councilwoman are capitalized only when they precede a name, as in Mayor John Engen or Councilwoman Pam Walzer or Councilman Bob Jaffe. You can refer to them by their last names on subsequent references. Other unelected officials are often given a formal title, such as City Attorney Jim Nugent and Police Chief Mark Muir but most others are best described by what they do, as in Bruce Bender, the city's chief administrator, or Steve King, who runs the city's public works department.

Wards -Council members represent six wards, but you don't need to offer the ward description with their names unless that's important to know, as it might be in a tussle between areas of the city over, say, street repairs. In that case, I'd say Councilman Bob Jaffe, whose Ward 3 includes the University area, called for ...

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Stories on the City Beat

Welcome to City Hall. We'll spend time there over the next few weeks learning how it works and how it affects the lives of folks in Missoula. We'll see who has the power there and how they use it.

A good way to learn that is to follow a controversy, and we've got one brewing. Here's the gist: The mayor wants to add a couple of new taxes to start pumping more money into building and maintaining streets and parks. (The city has had a devil of a time finding money for this kind of work.)

It won't cost a typical taxpayer more than a 12-pack of a national brand beer, but any new taxes right are bound to raise eyebrows. The idea's critics also point out that for at least the next year, taxpayers won't see any new road or park work. Instead, the tax will allow the city shift money around to avoid laying off employees and reducing other services. The mayor says he's cut his proposed budget enough already.

Missoulian reporter Keila Szpaller is covering the story closely for the paper and for the paper's city blog,

Do some reading there and on the city's website because we'll be covering Monday night's public hearing on this for a midnight deadline. Yep. By the way, you can sign up here for an advance peek at Monday's City Council agenda.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

A Handy Guide to Local Government

The Missoula League of Women Voters has great links to local government resources. Check out the right side of the page.

Public Affairs Beats, Fall 2010

Here are the beat assignments, based on your requests. Stay tuned for your first assignment.

Heather Pimley
Alyse Backus
Paige Huntoon
Daniel Mediate

John Crepeau

Higher Ed:
Ali Murray
Lynn Campbell

Natural Resources/Environment:
Hannah Ryan
Samantha Abel
Katherine Kettering

K-12 Schools:
Scott Ranf
Julia Williamson

Adrienne Ellsworth
Jon Tweeten

Alyssa Small
Emily Creasia

Monday, August 23, 2010

Welcome to Public Affairs Reporting

Come on in. Take a look around. We'll use this site in many ways this semester. Check in for:
  • Assignments/deadlines
  • Tip sheets
  • Examples
  • Links to help with your reporting and writing.

Your first assignment:

Choose a public affairs beat that you will cover for the semester. Here are the choices. Pick two from the list below, rank them, and send your choices to me in an e-mail by midnight Monday, Aug. 30. Along with your first choice, include a couple of paragraphs summarizing an ongoing local story on that beat and tell me how you might update it. (What questions would you ask? Who would you talk to?)

1. The CITY BEAT - You'll monitor the institutions that govern urban life in Missoula, including City Hall. It's a big beat, which is good because you'll find lots of stories. The trick is to hunt for news that will mean something to your readers.

2. K-12 SCHOOLS - Another big beat, with lots of news. You've got tens of thousands of students and parents to serve.

3. HIGHER EDUCATION - A crucial beat in Missoula. A lot of people want and need to know what's going on at the University of Montana.

4. The JUSTICE BEAT - Crime and punishment is a staple of community news coverage. We've got lots of law enforcement agencies and courts in this town, and they're always producing news.

5. The ECONOMY - Your job is to give readers they what need to make good decisions about their financial lives. Believe me, this is a rich beat.

6. HEALTH - Everyone cares about this, so we need good, timely reporting on health threats and trends in treatment, costs and access. The health care is big business in Missoula.

7. NATURAL RESOURCES/ENVIRONMENT - Another huge beat in Montana, with enormous consequences for the well-being of your readers. From wolves to weeds, the stories are everywhere.