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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.

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

Culture Discussion

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By Sarah Barchus

Abdul Mohamed, head of public relations for the Somali youth group Ka Joog, was interviewed over the phone by Ruben Rosario for an article in the Pioneer Press that covered the group's acceptance of the FBI leadership award.

Mohamed said it was a "good article" that accurately portrayed the struggles facing the Somali youth.

Mohamed said that what impressed him the most was that Rosario "focused on what it really meant to accept the award."

"Rosario was the only reporter who asked the tough question," Mohamed said.

Rosaario asked how the community would respond to the award. Mohamed said Rosario asked if after Ka Joog accepted the award, if the community would regard the group, as Mohamed put it, "as snitches."

This deals with a sensitive cultural issue. Mohamed said that although the Somali youth are "a minority and first generation immigrants, they are still citizens" and they need to be reminded that the "FBI protects their civil liberties."

Mohamed said that their organization's acceptance of the award will hopefully open the community's eyes to that reality.

Mohamed said that although he would have liked to add many things about Ka Joog, like the fact that they are in the process of opening an art center, he knows the information would be out of place in the award article.

Mohamed said Rosario did "a great job representing the organization."

Abdul Mohamed

Poll conversation

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By Sarah Barchus

In a recent article in the Star Tribune, politics reporter Baird Helgeson (651-925-5044) used information from polls to discuss the defeat of the proposed marriage amendment.

Helgeson said that when writing about controversial issues, like the marriage amendment, that attribution is key to avoid sounding biased. He said that he tries to write compelling stories and uses polls as the "bedrock" to back up statements that some people may see as "loaded."

Helgeson said that the Star Tribune uses polling companies to do its polling, and thus sets the standards for the information used in its stories. He said they usually shoot for a 3.5 percent margin of error.

Even with high standards for accuracy, Helgeson said the Star Tribune is sometimes criticized because they don't correct their sampling. He said they usually poll 1,000 people and ask them their political party. If they happen to have surveyed more people from one party than another, Helgeson said they don't try to find more people from the other party to balance the numbers. Helgeson said, "How people identify themselves is interesting."

Helgeson said the Star Tribune doesn't use a lot of outside polls, but when it does, reporters need to check who did the poll, see if the polled people were contacted via cellphone numbers (which generates a more representative sample), note the sample size, look for a low margin of error and read the questions carefully.

Helgeson said reporters have to be careful when using polls. He said politicians often criticize the press for hurting their campaign by reporting polls that show them in a bad light. Helgeson said reporters need to consider how their reporting may affect voters's opinions.

When polls are used effectively, Helgeson said they can bolster a case and display the issue; they can show what people care about and convey energy and motivation.

However, Helgeson said polling is a "tricky science." A poll is "just a snapshot in time," he said, and one needs to consider what other factors go into the numbers.

"A poll is just a poll," he said. "Even the best polls can be wrong."

Obituary Conversation

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By Sarah Barchus

I contacted Jim Buchta at the Star Tribune, the reporter who wrote Gerhard Haukebo's obituary.

Buchta's covers real estate so I was curious about how he got the obituary assignment and about his writing approach.

I learned that the Star Tribune has a rotating "online shift" that essentially requires reporters to drop their beat for a week to cover breaking news and to write an obituary. Buchta was tipped off about Haukebo's death from the Star Tribune's obituary department after a student from one of Haukebo's language camps called the Tribune's editor.

Buchta wrote the story from a paid obituary write-up containing basic facts and from an interview with Haukebo's daughter. Buchta said his main goal in writing an obituary is to describe to the public who the deceased was, rather than just what they did. Buchta said the story needs the "nuts-and-bolts facts, but also color." He said that he began the obituary with an anecdote from Haukebo's childhood because it showed the beginnings Haukebo's passion, which would ultimately lead to the accomplishments that made him newsworthy.

Buchta doesn't write obituaries very often, but he said that when he does he tries to "switch it up" and keep the story from sounding like a paid obituary or a resume and avoid the "risk of the list" by talking to two or three people who knew the deceased personally.

Buchta said that he approaches these people by first introducing himself and sympathizing for their loss. He then says that the deceased sounded like an interesting person and that he would like to tell their story. Buchta said talking to people is usually the easiest part of the obituary-writing process, because people like to talk about loved ones and are often prepared to talk to reporters if the deceased was well know.

Buchta said the most challenging aspect of writing obituaries is giving readers a good sense of who the person was. He said that there is "so much more you can say" and that he usually has more material than he can use. I found this to be my challenge as well. Buchta said he decides what to include by thinking about what he would repeat to a friend or what "interesting tidbits" he remembers the next day from his research without referencing his notes.

Buchta hasn't encountered many obituary-writing ethical issues because he hasn't had to write many. However, he is familiar with the Star Tribune's policy that editors need to approve the omission of facts such as a controversial cause of death. He said reporters can't automatically abide by a family's request to exclude sensitive newsworthy material from the story. Similarly, if a reporter knows of significant criminal events, Buchta said that he or she needs to include the information, in a tactful way. He also pointed out that because people don't usually like to talk badly about a deceased person, minor negative details about his or her life usually don't surface.

Although obituaries are something the Star Tribune's reporters are required to write, Buchta said that he enjoys the assignment.

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