Day #2.5: Budgets, Databases and FOIA! Oh, My!

January 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: After an exhausting first full day that included seven sessions over the course of 12 hours, today’s set of six sessions over 12 hours was a welcome change–or perhaps I’m just beginning to build a resistance to investigative conferences!

Pretty soon, I'll look like this!

No matter how you slice it, my brain is beginning to feel like a well-toned body of gray matter. This investigative boot camp is doing wonders for my journalistic sensibilities, as well as my general physical endurance.

Yesterday’s sessions focused on the watchdog trifecta: budgets, databases and FOIA.

Sessions like “Minding the Money” took a systematic look at higher ed institutions with a look at the cold hard cash, making use of the old Watergate adage; ‘follow the money.’

And follow it we did! All the way to federal audit clearinghouses and court record databases, most of which are available at various sites online or are a simple FOIA request away. We learned about how to avoid getting FERPA‘d and the fallacies (okay, maybe ‘fallacies’ isn’t the right word) of open records laws.

At the end of the day, I walked (more like crawled) back to my hotel feeling tired, but nevertheless, empowered! Though, empowered in a purely appropriate, non-power-hungry, journalism kind of way.

After always being told what we couldn’t do, or being constantly reminded of how low on the totem pole we are as ‘just students,’ it was nice to finally see a solution or be taken seriously by older people. Not once did any of the speakers at the conference tell us that we should drop a story because it might be too difficult or that it didn’t matter in the large scope of things.

I felt like a real journalist, learning real skills, pursuing real stories that really mattered. And you can bet that I’ll be taking back a couple things or two with me to campus next semester.

Follow me as I tweet happenings from the annual Campus Coverage Project (#ccp11) @jiejennyzou.

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Day #2: “A Document State of Mind”

January 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: Day two of investigative journalism boot camp started off with a quick talk with veteran reporter Jim Steele over a bagel and some orange juice in ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.

Jim Steele, pictured right, has worked with fellow reporter Donald Barlett, to form one of the most impactful investigative duos in American history that continues on to this day.

Does the name Steele sound familiar? Because it should.

Think Steele, as in one half of the legendary Barlett and Steele investigative duo that broke and continue to break some of the most important Pulitzer, and IRE, award winning journalism work since 1971.

Steele delivered a short, but cardinal rule for 75 budding student journalists: “Never assume.”

Steele began his journalism career as a cub reporter working for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

That is, never assume that someone will never speak to you, and never assume which document will ‘break’ the case for you. “The best governments do not want you to know things,” Steele said. And more often than not, reporters will mistakenly spend their time waiting for a “blockbuster” of information when they should be spending their time piecing together a usually “blotchy” narrative, he said.

Even in a digital age that is unparalleled by its ability to break news and provide immediacy to millions in the blink of an eye, it’s nice to know that good ole’ shoe-leather reporting will never go out of style.

So what’s the secret to success for one of the industry’s rare long-standing collaborations? A love for reporting, vigorous peer editing and a scientific approach to investigations. “We test the hypothesis,” Steele said. “Is this true or is that not true?”

Steele and Barlett made a splash in the journalism industry back in the 70s when they broke the norms of investigative journalism and went beyond simply monitoring illegal activity. It was their work on ethics breaches and broken systems that resulted in “a huge tidal shift” in the investigative genre.

For the first time, it was all about “finding a root cause,” whether it involved illegal activity or perfectly legal activity that proved to be anything but clean.

But in an industry that has routinely sold itself short by making everyone an expert on something, it’s too easy to lose credibility and lose viewers at the same time.

Which is where the documents come in.

For Steele, it’s all about maintaining “a document state of mind.”

“The heart of great journalists is curiosity,” Steele said. And with those words, I couldn’t think of a better way to jump down the rabbit hole that is the world of investigative reporting.

Follow my feed on the Campus Coverage Project (#ccp11) on twitter @jiejennyzou.

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