Monday, October 31, 2011

Tragedy and Journalists

Journalists who cover trauma and violence have to tread carefully for the sake of those directly involved for their own physical and emotional health.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma offers journalists thoughtful help for covering a variety of difficult subjects, including suicide, violence and children, domestic violence, interviewing victims and sexual violence. It offers self-help advice for journalists who sometimes struggle to cope with the violence they see.

"Tragedies and Journalists," a booklet available online and in pdf format, offers good advice on many of these issues.

(Photo of Holly Pickett, a UM alum who covered the revolution in Libya. Photo by Remi Ochlik/IP3 Press.)

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Friday, May 06, 2011

Resources for Covering Elections

We didn't get to cover an election this spring, but elections are very much a part of most public affairs beats. Federal, state and local elections demand good, thoughtful coverage, so here are some links that may help you understand the process and the expectations for coverage:

Covering Elections: The Basics

Questions for Better Election Coverage

How to “Truth Check” a Campaign Ad

Fact-checking Election Claims

Thursday, April 14, 2011

See How the Pros Write Supreme Court Stories

Those of you planning to cover Friday's Supreme Court hearing might want to read a few sample stories I've found. Every case is different, but you might get some idea by looking these over.

Court hears mother's appeal in baby's slaying

Court hears arguments over the effect of wells on lakes

NH Supreme Court hears case on cigarette making

Vermont's high court hears case on public access to records

Monday, April 11, 2011

This Week on the Justice Beat

Your assignment is to do one more story from the courts. I'd suggest you try a civil case, and there's a great opportunity coming Friday morning.

The Montana Supreme Court is coming to UM's School of Law to hear arguments in two cases, either one of which you easily cover for a midnight deadline, provided you do some digging in advance. Here's an outline of the two cases. Here's a link to the Montana SUPCO's website, where you can research the actual filings in the cases.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Civil Suits Make for Great Stories

Honest. I swear. They tell you who's doing shoddy work, who's not keeping promises, in short, how people in your community treat one another. Lawsuits are also how we challenge laws and ordinances and hold governments accountable.

But be careful. Until a judge or jury decides the issue, lawsuits are just one-sided allegations, so be fair. Talk to both sides. Dig into the claims.

Here's a sample civil suit. Like most, it spells out what the person suing (the PLAINTIFF) is upset about and what he or she or it (a person, a business or a government) wants the defendant to do about.

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

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Examples of Stories about Lawsuits

  • Pair of suits claim racial bias in Denver police stops
  • Supreme Court hears Wal-Mart gender bias case
  • Lawsuit says pot business faked patient forms
  • Missoula County votes to sue MDA over Imperial Oil megaloads
  • Yellowstone County commissioner blasts Missoula County over MDT lawsuit

Ethics on the Justice Beat

We talk about ethical journalism every time we meet, but no class discussion can begin to cover it all. Here's a link to other journalists' thinking about ethical issues they routinely confront on the justice beat.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to Write a Crime Story

What to cover?

Obviously, the big crimes make big news; the more people affected - or the more prominent the people involved - the more newsworthy the crime. Violent crimes like murder, rape and robbery tend to get more coverage, but fraud and thefts can sometimes have great consequences for huge numbers of readers or viewers (a Ponzi scheme, a string of identity thefts, etc.).

Otherwise, look for interesting crimes or criminal methods or situations that pose potential threats or provide a glimpse into the behavior of those around you.

What's your lead?

Every incident is different, so focus on what makes it uniquely interesting. Crime happens every day. That's not news, so lead with what's fascinating about the story you're chasing. Lead with something that readers will remember for the rest of the day or even longer.

An Arizona tourist was charged today with shooting a nearby camper who complained about the noise and smoke coming from his campsite.

Include essential details.

Trust your common sense. If it's a robbery you're covering, what was taken? Describe the robber's method. Describe the robber. If it's a murder, who was killed? How did it happen? What clues are there to why it happened?

If suspects are arrested, give readers names, ages, addresses, descriptive details. Have they been charged? With what? What are the potential penalties? What do they have to say for themselves? What are others saying on their behalf? Is there a history here?

Include telling details.

Your skill in describing details that paint pictures in readers' minds can separate you from mediocre reporters. Did the robbers escape in a baby blue Mercedes? Did the assailant use a silver candlestick, in the conservatory?

You'll get some of that from police, but it also comes from talking to witnesses, victims and even suspects. You're willingness to go beyond the police repots will separate you from the herd.

Show readers and viewers where you got this stuff.

Journalists call that attribution. It's crucial in crime stories. It shows that you're not making this up. It tells readers and viewers who is talking and who isn't. It lets them weigh the truth of what they hear. Accurately attributing information to court records can protect you from libel judgments, too.

Keep your opinions to yourself.

Suspects aren't guilty until a judge or jury says so. Even then, the system sometimes makes mistakes. Be careful. Tell readers what you know, but be humble about what you may not know. You're not the judge or the jury.

What happens next?

Don't overburden readers with process, but it is part of the story. Has the accused entered a plea? Will this go to court?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wednesday's Class: Meet at the Courthouse

We'll meet outside the Clerk of District Court's office at 1 p.m. sharp on Wednesday. If you want a ride, meet at my office at 12:30. I have room for four riders.

We'll learn how to dig up court records, and you'll get the assignment for this week's only story. See you there.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Great Resource for Justice Reporters

Learn the lingo so you can translate it

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 glossary of legal terms that should help.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Search the Invisible Internt

Subversive thought for the day: Google doesn't cover most of the stuff on the Internet. Click here to see what you've been missing.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Local Resources on the Justice Beat

Law Enforcement




It's Social Host night at the City Council

Your stories on tonight's public hearing are due by midnight. It's our last City Council assignment as a class, so show me you can do this stuff.

Friday, March 04, 2011

How to Succeed on the City Beat

We're covering the City Council for a midnight deadline Monday. To do well, you'll have to prepare before the meeting. I'd encourage you to read through the PAZ's public hearing item. Read the memo. I'd also urge you to read the comments about this item that Jaffe made this week.

The gist of this issue is not hard to grasp: The developer wants to build more apartments on this property than the current zoning allows. The neighbors aren't happy.

What's a City Council concerned about affordable housing supposed to do?

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The News Behind the Numbers

We talked in class about how public affairs reporters need to look behind the numbers in budgets to find stories about people and how they're affected.

You don't have to be a math wizard. If you can add, subtract, divide and multiply, you can follow most of what budget buildings do.

If you know how to calculate percentages, percentage increase and rates, you can see patterns that will help you explain the news. A little fuzzy on that? Here's help.

It also pays to know the tricks people play with numbers. The book "Proofiness," by Charles Seife, ought to be required reading for every journalist.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

About those funny marks on your papers ...

They may look like chicken tracks, but they're copy editing symbols. Here's your key to breaking the code.

Monday, February 14, 2011

You've got a date with the City Council tonight

We'll cover tonight's meeting for a midnight deadline. Midnight means midnight, not 20 minutes after. Your other assignment this week is a story from your beat or the city beat.

As the Boy Scouts like to say:


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A Note on Sources

My expectations for your stories:

1. Bolster your reporting with credible sources. Seek those who are the best qualified to address the subject.

2. Find multiple sources. Your reporting carries more weight if it rests on different perspectives. I won't accept stories with fewer than two sources.

3. Don't rely on friends, acquaintances, employers, family members, etc., as sources. You may think you can be impartial, but you can't.

4. No press releases, please.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Scouting for story ideas

I trust everyone survived Monday's blizzard. I've recommended merit badges in survival for those of you who made it to the City Council meeting. While the event produced little news, you should have scored a few story ideas on several of your beats. Let's talk about those Wednesday.

Meanwhile, take a peek at the agendas for various council committee meetings this week.

I'll make you a special this-week-only deal, too. If you want to cover something from the city beat this week - in lieu of a story from your regular beat - go for it.

By the way, I wrote this post without using a form of the verb "to be." Try it. It forces you to use the active voice.

Monday, February 07, 2011

This Week's Assignments

1. Write brief story from tonight’s City Council meeting. The action begins at 7 p.m. The deadline is midnight. Here's the agenda. You might find this map helpful, too.

2. Write a story from your beat. The feature deadline is Friday at 5 p.m. Breaking news (spot news, event coverage) is due at midnight on the day it breaks.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


How we behave
The social host debate in Missoula, and how it works elsewhere.

Streets need work, but it's not easy. Bridges need work. Potholes need fixing. More parking anyone?

Surveying the problem, but hard to tackle. Panhandling is an ongoing problem, too. The city's debate about that is news.

Growth and development
It's controversial. How should the city grow? Agreement is sometimes elusive. So what is allowed? Chickens? Sign pollution?

Council members
We have a new council member. Sometimes they make news off the job. Changes in members make news.

Taxes matter
People care about this stuff.

Transportation news
Bikes, buses and big rigs make headlines.

Human rights
Missoula's anti-discrimination ordinance made statewide headlines, and the so did the response. It's an ongoing issue.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Take a Tour of Missoula's Virtual City Hall

We'll be covering the City of Missoula next week. You can prepare for that by looking through the city's official website. Please make sure to sure to look over the City Council. You can also sign up to get a weekly e-mail telling you what's on the council's agenda for the next meeting.

Other key links include:

You can also catch up with news on the beat at Missoulian reporter Keila Szpaller's blog, I'd also urge you to sign up for Councilman Bob Jaffe's e-mail listserv. It's a good way to watch ideas develop into action.

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, too.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Your Beats and First Assignment

Beat Assignments:

City Government: Mark Boatman, Miranda Dalpiaz
Cops and Courts: Spencer Veysey
Natural Resources and Conservation: Taylor Anderson, Chris Wood
K-12 Schools: Chelsy Ranard
Higher Education: Dameon Matule, Lindsey Sanders
Local Economy: Beth Beechie, Dillon Kato
Health: Tom Holm, Ian Keffler

First deadline

By 5 p.m. Friday I want you to send me by e-mail a list of the major local agencies (city, county, state, federal) that govern your beat. The list doesn't have to be long.

I also want a 200-word paragraph explaining a recent local story on your beat that you think has "legs." Suggest how you might update or advance that story within the next week.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Welcome to Newzhound

Come on in. Take a look around. We'll use this site in many ways this semester. Check in for:

- Assignments and deadlines.

- Tip sheets and links to help with your reporting and writing.

- Examples of good reporting.

- Discussion about journalism ethics and the law.

By the way, here's your first assignment:

By 8 a.m. Tuesday, send me an e-mail with your first and second choice for a beat to cover. I’ll let you know your assignment by the day’s end.

The choices are:

1. The local economy – Lots of stories here. How are people in your community faring in this recession? What’s the market for jobs? Housing? Energy? Retail trends? A good way to start is update an ongoing story or localize a national one. What challenges do business owners face? What challenges do their workers face?

2. Missoula K-12 schools – You’ve got inside knowledge here. Education is about preparing people for change. So how’s that going? It’s also a big cost to taxpayers. How’s that money being spent?

3. Higher education – You’re a consumer as well as a student, so start asking questions. How well is this place preparing you for change? What works and what doesn’t? What’s new? What big projects and changes are leaders working on? Who’s running the place?

4. Missoula cops and courts – Again, lots of stories. This beat is big and newsy. You’ve got city police, a county sheriff’s department, the highway patrol, campus security and an array of federal cops (FBI, DEA, Homeland Security, ATF, etc.) You’ve got city, county and federal courts too.

5. City government – These folks are responsible for the safety and well-being of everyone in Missoula. You name it, the city deals with it. It provides police and fire protection, plans for growth, and maintains clean air, clean water, parks, streets and sidewalks. That’s the short list. This is a big beat with lots of news potential.

6. County government – Take the previous beat and apply those responsibilities over an area of roughly 2,600 square miles. Counties also act as an agent for state government. County courts prosecute crimes against the state. Counties collect property taxes and run elections. County officials maintain rural roads and plan for growth. They also share responsibilities with city officials for things such as transportation, libraries, public health, etc.

7. Health – Here’s another huge beat, especially today. From the latest on swine flu to the quality and availability of health care, this beat has lots of interest – and lots controversy. Think about breakthroughs in research and new treatments and care. Who’s providing what health care in your community? How good is that care? What does it cost? Who isn’t being served?

8. Natural resources and the environment – There’s no better place to cover this stuff than right here. The issues include climate change, wilderness policy, timber and mining policy, wildlife management, water and air pollution, environmental health, recycling, sustainable agriculture and industry. This beat is global with lots of local players.

9. Other – No list can cover everything, so if you have an idea of something with significant public policy angle, let me know. Here are a few I would consider: agriculture, sports/athletics policy, transportation, media/communications changes, etc.