April 13, 2007

TIME OUT: Working the 12 Steps

This is part of my presentation covered at the KACP workshop "Handling the Big Story on Campus"
Reporting Scandals:
12 Steps for Covering Sensitive Stories on the Administration

  1. Document everything - Keep a reporter's log narrating the obstacles and accomplishments in reporting the story. Its a safe way to express your the emotions and keep them out of the news story. Also reporters sometimes become the story. Use the log as a tool to show you did your homework. It is also helpful if you end up filing a grievance against an administrator who's attempting to stop publication of your article.
  2. Notify SPLC ASAP - Avoid of Libel by using the Student Press Law Center. The SPLC site also contains a comprehensive report: "A Dozen Tips to Avoid Being Burned by a Hot Story," and a State Open Records Law Request Letter Generator. The letter generator helps students submit state open records requests by citing the statues of their state.
  3. Memorize policy - Well, at least know what administrators are talking about when they invoke college policy. You have to know policy better than they do -- use it to your advantage.
  4. Get the documents - Using official letters, Board of Trustees meeting packets, e-mails, etc. is critical to getting accurate details and protecting yourself against libel. Your notebook, recorded interviews, e-mail and even voice messages become essential documents. Take careful notes and hang on to your notebook and recorded interviews. Make copies of everything.
  5. Allow time to get all sides - Be sure to contact every party for comment multiple time and in multiple ways. Allow a reasonable amount of time for them to respond. Plan ahead for breaking news: Get the cell numbers and home phone numbers of college spokespeople.
  6. Don't let them call it "shabby journalism" - Accuracy is always important but even more so in sensitive stories. Even a small inaccuracy will cast doubt on the entire process. Don't give anyone a reason to dismiss the credibility of the article.
  7. Name names - Because we are student journalists people will doubt the story's validity simply because we reported it. Not only do unnamed sources cast doubt on the reporter but officials can sidestep the issues raised in the article by focusing on identifying the unnamed sources.
  8. Find the student - Regular stories about the administration are hard to make relevant to students. In this case it is essential to show how this scandal affects students' daily lives.
  9. Avoid sensationalizing - Play it straight, let the facts of the scandal speak for themselves. Be able to rely on the newsworthiness of the story if anyone asks, "How could you print such a thing?"
  10. Talk to your staff - When the time comes, explain that the paper is going to publish a big story that could have repercussions for the entire staff. Give them the option of not participating in that issue because they all have different reasons for being on staff. Not all of them signed up for this kind of stuff.
  11. Be professional - Administrators will get in your face. People will start yelling at you or your staff. When complaints start rolling in, be professional. Don't let others think you take personal pleasure in the public embarrassment of others.
  12. Follow up - Be sure to update your readers on the fallout and reaction. This also helps re-emphasize the newsworthiness of the story.
Miguel M. Morales, Johnson County Community College for the Kansas Associated Collegiate Press convention - April 16, 2007
Adapted from a handout by Amy Callahan, Northern Essex Community College