Data Discussion II

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By Sarah Barchus

Reporter Michael Berens said that his Glamor Beasts project was a "little bit of a departure from stories in the past."

"It was a hair brain idea," Berens said.

Berens said he had been working on a project on the painkiller methadone and after a particularity tough interview he joked with colleagues that his next story would just be about "fuzzy little animals."

What started as a joke turned into an investigation about one of the zoo's most recognizable animals--the elephant, Berens said.

Berens said that it took about 3-4 months to get a good handle on all the information. This involved first contacting a foreign zoologist who had compiled data on elephants, then obtaining pdfs of elephant "studbooks," filing public record requests, google searching and finally entering missing information by hand into excel.

With that enormous pile of information, Berens had to decide what to include in the story.

"We use what fits with the theme of the story--what readers need to be convinced," Berens said.

For this story, that meant statistics like the fact that for every one elephant born in captivity, two die, Berens said.

The technical side of the project wasn't that difficult, which Berens said only required basic computer skills like being able to use Microsoft
Excel and Access.

"It doesn't have to be hard, and it isn't," Berens said. "It's still all about the creativity."

The creativity in the Glamor Bests project resulted from the combined efforts of a team of 30, Berens said.

"We had a lot of discussions about what held the most value for readers," Berens said. "We thought about the different subsets of readers and how to present the information in the easiest way for the reader to absorb."

And many people did absorb the story, whether they read the article, watched the video, paged through pictures or explored the data through interactive graphics. Berens said his inbox alone saw around 500 emails from people saying they were "gratified that someone was tackling a complex issue with precision to make an airtight story."

But not all people were happy with Berens' story. Berens said the greatest challenge was having "highly credentialed, intelligent people tell me I was wrong" and having zoo officials lie to him. Berens said he found himself struggling to cut through the smoke screen. But that's all part of the job.

"In document-based journalism you tell what he said and what she said," Berens said. "Then you tell who is lying."

Berens says the data is what makes a story irrefutable. Berens said the most significant and compelling proof he found was peer-reviewed published research from the zoo industry saying that elephants are not doing well.

Praised by some, challenged by others, Berenes said he felt gratified by the project and was able to do his job by putting the spotlight on the issue and letting people see and judge it for themselves.


Data Discussion

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By Sarah Barchus

After persistent attempts to reach the reporter and the editor of the Seattle Times article "Glamor Beasts: The dark side of elephant captivity," I was still unable to connect with anyone to discuss the process of gathering, consolidating and reporting large sets of data. However, I was able to find a "How we did it" article written by the reporter that answered some of the questions I would have asked him.

The reporter, Michael J. Berens, said that the Seattle Times team was greatly challenged by the project because United States zoos don't keep a comprehensive record of elephant births and deaths.

To find this information the Seattle Times needed to examine studbooks, which track elephant breeding, and research from Swedish zookeeper Dan Koehl's database of worldwide elephant ownership, which included notes of elephant birth and deaths, according to the article.

Berens said the Seattle Times created its own database and verified each elephant's history. When they encountered gaps in the story, the Seattle Times with the help of two researchers used public records from zoos and old newspaper articles to complete the picture, according to the supplement article.

The Seattle Times focused on the past 50 years, although they compiled data from the past century, Berens said. They tracked the history of the Woodland Park Zoo's elephant program through zookeeper logs, medical-history charts, clinical-pathology records, diagnostic-laboratory results, zoo memorandums and emails and interviews with top officials involved with the program, according to the supplement article.

To gain a comprehensive understanding of the situation, the Seattle Times examined court records, zoo-industry research reports, legislative hearings and zoo financial records, Berens said.

Gaining the information was obviously an extensive process. I planned to ask Berens why the Seattle Times decided to pursue the project in the first place. My guess is they believed it was a relevant story because according to the research elephants could become "demographically extinct" in the next 50 years.

I was also going to ask how they decided what information to use in the story when they had gathered so much. This was somewhat answered when Berens said they used data from the last 50 years because that's when the first birth of an elephant in North American zoo occurred.

Lastly, I would have asked how they decided to best present vast information in a condensed, interesting story. This was answered by the story itself. The Seattle Times didn't settle for simple text. In order for readers to truly explore the situation, the Seattle Times created multiple story supplements including, an interactive family tree, a photo gallery, excerpts from documents used in the creation of the story, an interactive map that shows where elephants died and details the cause, and lastly a graph that visually displays how elephant deaths are higher than births.

The project required strong computer skills such as data entry and coding as well as the collaborative efforts of many, including a reporter, photographer, multimedia producer, editor, desk editor, photo editor, print designer, graphic designers, another producer, web designer and developer, audio producers and researchers, according to the credits listed at the bottom of the "How we did it" article.

Typhoon in Philippines killed hundreds

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By Sarah Barchus

The death toll of a major out-of-season typhoon in the southern Philippines reached more than 270 Wednesday, officials said, the New York Times reported.

Typhoon Bopha, called Pablo in the Philippines, first hit the island of Mindanao on Tuesday, the most powerful typhoon to hit it in decades with winds of 175 kph, the Central News Network reported.

The storm raised the highest death toll on the region of Davao by causing violent floods that destroyed houses and carried away dozens of people, CNN reported.

Officials mandated early evacuation of communities in the typhoons path, the New York Times reported. However, the storm frustrated some of the authorities's efforts to get people to safety, CNN reported.

"In one case in Davao Oriental, the evacuation centers -- public buildings and schools -- were also victims of flash flooding," Camilo Gudmalin, assistant secretary at the Department of Social Welfare and Development, said. "And as a result, some people who were in an evacuation center died."

Rescue efforts are still underway, but roads blocked by landslides are restricting the rescuers's access, CNN reported.

More than 213,000 people were affected by the typhoon and about 170,000 people are in evacuation centers, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council's report, CNN reported.

The typhoon receded Wednesday, moving away from the outlying western island of Palawan, but its heavy rains are still affecting a large portion of the Islands, CNN reported.

Bopha brought back painful memories of the Severe Tropical Storm Washi, known in the Philippines as Sendong, which hit the Islands at the same time last year. At one point on Monday, Bopha's winds reached 240 kph in the open ocean--twice the speed of Sengong, CNN reported.


By Sarah Barchus

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra said Tuesday that it has a deficit of $895,080 for the fiscal year that ended June 30, the Pioneer Press reported.

The deficit is the first that the SPCO reported in a decade and comprises about 9 percent of its expenses, the Star Tribune reported.

SPCO president and board chair Dobson West said that the orchestra had cut expenses by $1.5 million, which prevented deficits since 2008. The cut included laying off 17 percent of administrative staff and slicing the management's and musicians pay, the Star Tribune reported.

But West said that "if significant changes are not made" that the SPCO will see even larger deficits, the Star Tribune reported.

For example, the Minnesota Orchestra is expected to report a deficit of 19 percent of its expenses, the Star Tribune reported.

Musicians from both orchestras are restricted from performing at their facilities due to contract disputes, the Star Tribune reported. Additionally, the musician's concerts and paychecks were cancelled for the rest of the year, the Pioneer Press reported.

The musicians are not willing to make the sacrifices management is asking of them and they are unhappy with how much control it is taking of the orchestra, the Pioneer Press reported.

However, Lynn Erickson, co-chair of the musicians' negotiating committee, said that the musicians are "very interested in getting back to the table and trying to find a resolution to all of this," the Pioneer Press reported.

Meanwhile, the SPCO musicians performed at the Wayzata Community Church and are scheduled to play at the Minneapolis' Central Lutheran Church Dec. 20 and 21, the Pioneer Press reported.

Suspected shooter of Cold Springs officer released

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By Sarah Barchus

The suspected shooter in the death of a Cold Springs police officer was released Tuesday due to a lack of evidence, the Pioneer Press reported.

Ryan Larson, 34, was released from the Stearns County jail where he had been held since midnight Thursday under suspicion of shooting Officer Tom Decker, 31, the Star Tribune reported.

Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall said that all agencies agreed that more evidence was needed to continue holding Larson, the Star Tribune reported.

"Our agencies have reviewed the investigative data collected thus far and must act within the time allotted by law, within the constraints of the law, and based upon the facts known at this time," Kendall said, the Star Tribune reported.

Decker was making a welfare check on Larson at the request of Larson's family, who were concerned Larson was suicidal, when police think he was ambushed and shot below Larson's apartment, Evans said, the Pioneer Press reported.

Jeff Scoles a friend of Larson's said he was with Larson most of the day at the Scoles's Winners bar in Sartell while he worked and Larson did homework, the Star Tribune reported.

"He was normal," Scoles said. "In fact, I thought he seemed like he was in was in a good mood."

Larson said he was sleeping at the time and that police arrested the wrong person, the Star Tribune reported.

"Basically, they have no evidence whatsoever that points in my direction," Larson said to the St. Cloud Times on Sunday. He said, "They have no gun, they have no fingerprints, they have nothing," the Star Tribune reported.

Police are still looking for a 20-gauge shotgun that they believe to be the murder weapon. Anyone with information is urged to call the Stearns County Sheriff's Office at 30-251-4240, the Star Tribune reported.

"Investigators will not rest until we fully determine what happened the night of Officer Decker's death and bring to account those responsible, "Drew Evans, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Assistant Superintendent, said, the Pioneer Press reported.

Decker left behind four children under 9 years old. His funeral is scheduled for at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. John's Abbey and University Church in Collegeville, the Pioneer Press reported.

Two charged in Coast Guard officer's death

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By Sarah Barchus

Two Mexicans men were charged Monday in the Sunday death of a Coast Guard officer who was fatally injured after confronting suspected smugglers off the coast of California, the United States attorney's office said, the New York Times reported.

Jose Meija-Leyva and Manuel Beltran-Higuera were arrested from a panga boat that rammed into Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III's vessel, knocking him into the water where he hit his head on the propeller. Horne was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital, the Cable News Network reported.

The men were held without bail and made their first appearance in court on Monday, the New York Times reported. The preliminary hearing is scheduled for Dec. 17 and the arraignment will be on Dec. 21, CNN reported.

Early Sunday, a Coast Guard patrol saw a panga, a 25 to 45-foot-long engine powered work boat, off Santa Cruz Island and alerted the Cutter Halibut, an 87-foot-long patrol boat. The Halibut crew approached the panga in a smaller boat after they saw that it was "operating with no lights," CCN reported.

The panga rammed into the smaller boat, knocking Horne and another into the water, and fled. Both men were recovered by their fellow crewmembers and taken to the hospital where Horne was pronounced dead and the other was treated for minor injuries, CNN reported.

After three attempts and the release of pepper spray, the Coast Guard arrested the two men on the panga who said they were transporting gasoline, CNN reported.

According to the criminal complaint, the two men illegally entered the United States from Mexico, CNN reported.

Data Analysis

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By Sarah Barchus

In the article Elephants are Dying Out in America's Zoos from the Seattle Times, reporter Michael Berens compiled data from various sources to form an intriguing and sad story about the failing efforts to sustain the species.

Berens used information from a multitude of reports and logs and other zoo documents and found that the elephant infant mortality rate is 40 percent, triple of that in the wild in Africa and Asia.

The Times also did an analysis of 390 elephant deaths that occurred over the past 50 years, which showed unfortunate realities like the fact that for every one elephant born, two die and that elephants could become "demographically extinct" in the next 50 years. The information revealed common causes of death such as foot and musculoskeletal problems associated with captivity conditions.

Organization was probably the most important skill for this story. The reporter needed to sort through and make sense of many individual elephant cases to identify commonalities and trends. Computer programs such as excel may have been helpful to compile and sort the information.

Berens followed several elephants, among them a pair named Thonglaw and Belle and their baby Packy. The Seattle Times made this information interactive by creating a Thonglaw's family tree. The tree is animated and shows new family members pop up as a moving bar keeps track of the year on a timeline moves forward. The graphic is color-coded to show those alive and those dead and also to show the relationship between the various elephants.

The Seattle Times also displayed information in an interactive map of the United States where readers can see where and why an elephant died. Additionally, readers can view photos of elephants at the zoos.

The graphics, graph and pictures engaged readers by helping them visualize the data beyond numbers and even beyond words.


By Sarah Barchus

The Egyptian constitutional court postponed its ruling on the legitimacy of the constitutional assembly after Islamist protesters blocked the entrance to the courthouse on Sunday, the New York Times reported.

The court said in a statement that it will not hold any sessions until they can do so "without any psychological or physical pressures," the Cable News Network reported.

The court blamed the Islamists for using intimidation tactics but the Islamists said the court was just making excuses for not doing its job, the New York Times reported.

The draft was pushed through Friday by the constitutional assembly, which feared that the court might dissolve the assembly before it could finish the draft, the New York Times reported.

The postponing follows President Mohamed Morsy's power-grabbing edict, which put his law and the constitutional assembly out of the court's reaches until the new constitution was written, CNN reported.

Morsy announced a Dec. 15 constitutional referendum on Saturday and both protesters and supporters gathered in the streets to voice their opinions, CNN reported.

The constitution is "mixed" in the way it addresses human rights, according to a report from the international Human Rights Watch group, the New York Times reported. For example, the preamble says that women are equal to men, but it also emphasizes their role as mothers, CNN reported.

The constitution also contains a provision that would effectively serve to remove Judge Gebal, who is concerned by the rise of Islamists, who greatly support Morsy, from the bench, the New York Times reported.

Ethics Discussion

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By Sarah Barchus

While writing an article for the Pioneer Press about a man who sexually abused an 8-year-old relative, reporter Marino Eccher faced several ethical questions.

Eccher said that in sexual abuse stories the biggest priority is taking care not to include information that would make it easy to identify the victim. He said that this is especially important in this story where the victim was a young child. In this case, the criminal complaints contained more specific information than he chose to include in the story, such as the victim's specific relation to the offender, Eccher said.

Another ethical question Eccher said a journalist needs to consider is if the graphic detail listed in the police reports is something her or she wants in the story. He said it is a matter of determining how to properly and accurately describe what happened without going too far. Eccher said that in this criminal complaint there were graphic descriptions and anatomical terms that, while factually important for the police, were inappropriate for the newspaper.

When writing the story, the reporter needs to remember the effect on the family. Eccher said that a reporter needs to consider "how much to make people read about what's probably the worst event of their lives in the newspaper."

Eccher said one way a newspaper can be sensitive to the family is through the placement of the story. For instance, this six-inch story was not placed on the front page, Eccher said.

"This is not the kind of story that needs to be shouted from a mountaintop," Eccher said. "The article told a story about the dark side of humanity; not everyone needs to know the situation."

Even though Eccher said the story was "ugly," he chose to write it because it was "interesting and unusual" that the man turned himself in.

As a reporter, one needs to remain unbiased but in stomach-turning cases this could be difficult. Eccher said that the best way to avoid getting caught up in the emotions is by looking for the facts of what is going on in the world.

Although it is important to keep the story's tone factual, Eccher said that a reporter can still "convey the human element" through word choice.

"A reporter is telling you it's really bad," Eccher said, when he or she uses words like "chilling."

Marino Eccher
651-228-5421

Native Americans to receive $3.4 billion settlement

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By Sarah Barchus

Thousands of Native Americans will begin to receive payments from the government as part of a $3.4 billion settlement, the Pioneer Press reported.

The solution to the long-time dispute over government handling of Native American land accounts was first outlined in 2009, then approved by Congress in 2010, then went through a two year appeal process. The plan was finalized Saturday and was announced by government officials Monday, the Cable News Network reported.

The settlement began with a lawsuit filed by Blackfeet leader Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont. in 1996 when she noticed that those leasing Indian land made profit while the American Indians who entrusted the land to the government saw nothing, the Pioneer Press reported.

Cobell died last year from cancer, but her long-term legal fight ended in victory with the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement, which will pay $1,000 checks to 350,000 beneficiaries by Christmas, the plaintiffs' attorneys said, the Pioneer Press reported.

Additionally, 1.9 billion will be used to buy fractions of land from willing Native American sellers, which will be given as allotments to the tribe. The settlement will also be used to create an Indian education scholarship, the Pioneer Press reported.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he hopes the settlement will allow the government and the American Indians to move forward from the issue, CNN reported.

"With the settlement now final, we can put years of discord behind us and start a new chapter in our nation-to-nation relationship," he said, CNN reported.