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.