Archive - Nov 16, 2008
The Twitterstorm dujour is about Motrin’s new online video. I’ve loosely transcribed the video:
Posting videos online seems to be in fashion.
I mean in theory it’s a great idea
There’s YouTube, Facebook, Blip.tv and who knows what else they’ve come up with
Supposedly it’s a real bonding experience
They say that customers you reach via social media tend to complain less than others
But what about you?
Do Ad execs that fail at social media cry more than those who don’t?
These things put a ton of strain on your agency.
Did I mention your reputation?
Sure, you’ll put up with the pain, because it’s a good kind of pain.
It’s for your client.
Plus it totally makes you look like you’re a hip agency.
So if you’re ads look tired and crazy, people will understand why.
Motrin, we feel your pain.
Yesterday, I attended a workshop on Watchdog Journalism hosted by Southern Connecticut State University and the Connecticut Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. In essence, it was two Investigative Reporters and Editors workshops combined into one full day of information.
The talk was very oriented towards people in traditional media, using buzzwords of the industry that I had times had to stop and figure out what they were saying. In addition, it was oriented towards people working in a newsroom, addressing issues about how to pitch stories to editors, how to make sure that the media companies’ legal department was properly informed of your investigations and so on.
Nonetheless, the conference was a treasure trove of ideas and hints on how to do better investigations and I would love to see more bloggers participate in workshops like this.
One idea that got me thinking was the admonition about getting organized and having a mix of quick hit stories together with stories that take longer to develop. I don’t know how I compare to other bloggers, but I’m not particularly organized. Almost all of my blog posts are ones that I write as a quick hit. Something happens, and I write a blog post. I might spend some time digging into the data for a story, doing some background work, and verifying information, but all of this is in a quick hit mode with the time between conceiving of a blog post and the time when the post is online being anywhere from less than an hour to less than a day.
In terms of doing watchdog journalism, you may need to spend a lot of time gathering data and information, watching trends develop and noting when something out of the ordinary happens. I have so many irons in the fire right now, I’m just not sure how I will incorporate this into my blogging, but the idea is intriguing and I’ll look for a way to get this done.
Another useful hint they had was that when you are working on a large investigative story, try to have a nugget of a small story inside of it so that if the large story collapses, you still have some sort of story to run with. Likewise, they spoke of the advantages of doing a “rolling investigation” where you come out with your first story, and then continue the investigation and do follow up afterwards.
This has the advantage of getting stories out the door, as opposed to working on a large story and then for some reason, never managing to get it finished. In addition, once your first installment is out, you may get more tips and you may change the course of what is happening. Follow-up stories add pressure for reform.
One of Kim’s top issues last year at Common Cause was the Citizens Elections Program. We have now gone through our first cycle with the program and there are plenty of interesting issues to follow up on. How did people spend their campaign funds? What parts of the program did not work as well as they could have? When the General Assembly gathers, how will the program affect the interaction between lobbyists and legislators?
Another interesting story to follow is ACORN. Now that the election is over, what has happened to the various cases brought against ACORN? What is happening to counter cases? Some of this will require longer term research and digging.
Another thing that was repeated frequently was that when you do longer term reports, write sections as you go. It captures the feelings of the moment better.
With this setting the tone for the day, we dug into how to do better investigative report. Neil Reisner of Florida International University spoke about making effective use of the Internet. This is something of particular interest to bloggers, and Neil’s comments started off provocatively suggesting that the Internet is Evil, that Google is the Devil and the Wikipedia is worst of all. They are too easy and the discourage reporters from being enterprising. We end up using the easiest source, one that shows up in Google, instead of the most informative source, and they may even lead us to false information.
He spoke about the invisible Internet, those parts of the internet that have not been indexed by search engines. He claimed that two thirds of the Internet is invisible to the search engines, and as an example, he noted websites that you can enter information into a form to gather information, but that the information from the results of the search is not something that gets indexed.
He provided a great list of resources faster than anyone could copy them down. Fortunately, however, he saved his presentations and will be making them available online. As I write this, the PowerPoint for his second presentation is up at betterwatchdog.wetpaint.com, and the PowerPoint to his first presentation should be up there soon.
He noted using sites like reporter.org to find resources and links to other journalism organizations and PowerReporting to find online sites for searching all kinds of data that doesn’t show up in Google.
He noted various government portals such as FedStats, First Gov, GPO’s list of databases, GAO Reports, and of particular interest, the GAO’s Official Guide to Special Investigators. I should find time to simply go out and explore these sites in much more detail. Neil noted that if you get yourself on the GPO mailing list and you’ll never be lonely again. He also talked about Census data and getting on their mailing list.
Later in the day, Neil taught another section on understanding the dataflow. Information online may start as a paper form filled out at a government office, or as data entered directly into a computer. It may have been aggregated and if you dig deep, you may be able to gain access to the underlying data and or documents. He encouraged people to always ask for the underlying data. He also told a great story about how he found one person by searching for tangential information. “You look for what you’re looking for, but you also look for what you’re not looking for.“
Tisha Thompson of WTTG, the Fox affiliate in Washington DC also taught two sessions. One was “The art of finding and cultivating sources” and the second was “The art of the Interview”. In many ways, the most important points that she spoke about were being respectful and honest. Treat people nicely, recognizing what they are going through and they will give you the information you are looking for. Don’t burn people. Don’t ambush them. Be careful of legal issues. Make sure you keep proper notes, yet also make sure you protect yourself and any informants you have, especially if they are a whistleblower.
It was great to hear her perspective on interviewing, about why the Palin and Couric interview was so good, why interviewers might need to appear dumb at times. She spoke about carefully orchestrating an interview, especially if it is a confrontational interview, and how some people will end up talking in the language of their profession and you have to dumb down what you’re saying and asking to get them to explain things in a way that people not in their profession will understand.
Other sessions included an attorney for the Freedom of Information Commission talking about how to get the information you need using FOI requests and complaints, a person from the Wall Street Journal talking about the importance of knowing how to use spreadsheets, database and statistical analysis packages, and Doug Haddix who is IRE’s current training director talking about how to make stories bullet proof.
It was an extremely valuable workshop which I’m glad I attended. Hopefully what I learned there will improve my blogging, and I’ll be able to get more interesting watchdog stories added to my blog going forward.