April 26, 2007

How I Covered the "Veteran's Awareness" Story

The idea for this story came from a combination of two things: the assignment to cover a bill in the Minnesota Senate, and my interest in veterans' affairs.

I have several friends in the military, some still overseas, and when I saw a category for "Veterans" and "Military" in the list of bills in the MN Senate, I knew I wanted to get a stroy from there.

The bill I chose, to improve veterans' access to mental health services, seemed timely as well as interesting. Many people have loved one in the military and are concerned about both their physical safety and mental health. With more and more Iraq vets returning home, mental health issues like PTSD are gathering more salience in the news.

There were several authors to the bill, not just the chief author. I contacted all of them through email first, then called some of their offices. No one was available over the phone when I called, but surprisingly a few of the authors (the ones quoted in the story) got back to me.

I needed more information from other sources to fill out the story and give it authority, so I contacted two psychologists at the U of M. Fortunately, the one with a social psychology background got back to me very quickly. She was very helpful in adding a facet to the story I had not thought of before (that the military's problem with getting vets therapy may not be access, but stigma).

I also spoke with an Iraq vet I knew through some friends. He was more helpful than I thought he would be. I wish that I had had the time to find more veterans to comment, though.

I would have loved to find out how many veterans actually use the mental health services, how many (estimated) should be using them, etc. If I was writing this for a magazine or newspaper, I would like to have added two graphs or charts: One listing the most common mental health complaints of vets, and another showing what proportion of vets need/use mental health services. Photos of everyone who commented on the story would also have been helpful.

April 23, 2007

News Can Make Itself

The coverage of the tragedy at Virginia Tech is the most recent example of how news stories can "make themselves."

The killings in Virginia certainly were news worthy of national coverage--what I am focusing on here is how news stories can prompt other issues to become stories.

For example, in this case, after the coverage of the main facts and background of the shootings in Virginia, stories now appear around issues only related to the tragedy. The Star Tribune published a story about security at Minnesota colleges and campuses; the Daily has been publishing opinion pieces on gun control using VA Tech as an example; MSNBC.com links to an opinion piece by a soldier wondering why flags are half-staff for the students, but not for Iraq casualties.

This spreading activation in the news is expected and often appropriate. The tighter airport security after 9-11 is an example of improvements made to some system after a national news story.

It seems that it is necessary for some widely-known event to occur for certain issues to gain prominence and respect, which is understandable.

But how can the media make less "famous" news more important to people when the issue is long-term, like global warming? I cannot think of when "green" issues get lots of coverage apart from when famous people bring them up, like Al Gore's movie, or when a report or annual event like Earth Day occurs.

Can the media attract attention to more long-term news without a "prompt"?


April 20, 2007

What is Role of Media During Tragedy?

Several national news networks will be greatly decreasing or altogether eliminating images of VA Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui from thier broadcasts, the Pioneer Press reports in an article from Associated Press reporter David Bauder.

As you may recall, Cho sent NBC News a package with videos and messages that arrived at their offices posthumously. NBC aired some of the footage, as did many other networks. The pictures were widely available on the Internet, as well.

The decision to pull the material from the air was made, apparently, in sympathy for the victims' families.

"It has value as breaking news," said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider, "but then becomes practically pornographic as it is just repeated ad nauseam."

There are ethical questions towards both putting the material out there and pulling it. The images have been described as disgusting, and are certainly disturbing to anyone familiar with the VA Tech tragedy, so should that have overridden the news organizations' instinct to show the public what was in their possession?

As far as pulling the material, is it the media's responsibility to decide what is too disturbing for its audience?

I can't help but think back to the coverage of 9/11, where several outlets repeatedly aired footage of people jumping from the twin towers to escape the fires inside. It was shocking to see, but just hearing about it would not have done justice to the enormity of the decision these people made to jump.

It is also interesting to note that NBC also gave the package to the police before they showed the images and writings in broadcast.

I have heard in several classes a form of this quote: "The media's job is not to police." If this is the case, why did NBC hand over the package from Cho before telling its audience?

At the same time, many of us have heard that "the media (especially newspapers) are a public service." If that is true, it gives a lot more implicit power to the media. If the media are supposed to serve the public by providing news and analysis, the media would also decide what is important enough to be reported on. It can, then, decide how to report it, how much should be reported, what the audience should think of it, etc.

It is certainly enlightening to see how the media responds to events such as those at VA Tech. I believe it tells a lot more about the media's values than textbooks.


April 17, 2007

Awareness of Veterans' Mental Health Spreading

Jonathan Schulze was a decorated marine and Iraq war veteran. According to Kare 11’s Web site, he sought admittance to the V.A. Medical Center in St. Cloud on January 11th because he was suicidal. Schulze was instead put on a wait list. He hung himself days later.

To improve access to counseling services for Minnesota’s veterans, five senators have authored a bill requesting money for a telephone hotline and improved counseling services in “underserved areas.?

“Senator Erickson Ropes (the main author of the bill) sponsored this bill because many of our returning veterans are not receiving sufficient mental health care,? Tim Donahue, legislative assistant to Sen. Erickson Ropes said. “Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder have been great burdens on veterans, and are often not fully treated.?

The bill also asks for the commissioner of veterans affairs and the adjutant general of the National Guard to report to the state Senate on the psychological status of soldiers returning to Minnesota after serving in Iraq.

“As a co-author of the bill, I think that it’s important we protect our veterans in every way possible,? Sen. Mike Jungbauer, a co-author of the bill, said.

Currently, a soldier looking for mental health counseling must find a clinic or veteran’s hospital and call to make an appointment by him or herself, Donahue said. The hotline would help to facilitate the process.

Emily Stark, who teaches psychology at the University of Minnesota, says that even if access to counseling resources is improved, many people who need them may not use them.

“Improving access to mental health resources is always good, but I think a bigger problem is that there’s a stigma about seeing a counselor,? Stark said. “Some people might feel that if they admit they need therapy, then they are ‘weak’ or ‘crazy,’ and this type of thinking might be even more prevalent amongst the military.?

Aaron Abel, a specialist in the Army Reserve who served in Iraq driving supply trucks agrees with Stark.

“I’ve personally never needed counseling, but I have a good friend from my platoon who just started seeing a counselor for PTSD,? Abel says, referring to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “I’m not too worried about him, but I know a few other guys who probably should be getting therapy and aren’t.?

Stark says the bill would be more effective if it included a component to guard against the negative stigma of therapy.

As of now no committee hearings have been scheduled to further the bill.

“At this point with our committee deadlines, this bill may not go anywhere this session,? Sen. Jungbauer says. “But stranger things have happened.?

However, even if no legislation is enacted to help, other resources are appearing.

In an article appearing today in the Pioneer Press, author David Hanners describes a former Marine and Iraq veteran who teamed up with Schulze's family to establish a foundation to help soldiers get mental health help quicker.

"The family announced it had incorporated the nonprofit Jonathan Schulze 'I Can't Hear You' Foundation. The name comes from the phrase barked by Marine Corps drill sergeants to their charges," says the article.


Coverage of the Virginia Tech Massacre

The Pioneer Press and Star Tribune featured the exact same story from AP writer Matt Apuzzo. The Pioneer Press posted it online at 1:40 am, and the Star Tribune posted it most recently at 4:43 this afternoon.

The story is appropriately long, having been written well after the attacks, it is filled with not only a description of the events that unfolded the day of the shooting, but also background on the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old English senior. The story also provided quotes with reactions from students, instructers, the University president, and police officers.

The coverage of this story is mostly predictable because it is a predictable scenario: Of course the gunman was distrubed. Of course there were signs and missed opportunities for intervention.

It is interesting to compare national coverage to the local media at the university. The Collegiate Times is the Virginia Tech student newspaper. In an article posted yesterday afternoon on the paper's Web site, written by Saira Haider and Kevin Anderson, details such as the place where news conferences were held, the floor of the dorm that the shootings occured on, and a more detailed account of the attack from a student witness.

One feature of the school paper's article I thought was helpful in understanding this story was a timeline of events, including the two-hour gap between the first shooting and notification to the campus community.

I don't know exactly how the logistics works for newspapers using AP stories, but I think a good idea would be to consult more local sources for information when national news occurs. The AP reporter might not be from the area the event(s) occured in, so a credible source that is closer to the community may be very helpful in understanding the story and humanizing it.


March 26, 2007

Beach: How I Reported the Story

To report "Bacteria Levels Under Control at Bloomington Beach," I began by searching for city council meetings.

Once I found one at an appropriate time in Bloomington, I researched the names and backgrounds of the current city council members.

I went to the city council meeting on a Monday night. I arrived about 15 minutes early.

There was a meeting going on in the council chambers, but I was allowed to sit down anyway.

There were copies of the evening's agenda set out, so I took one and read through it, noting issues that seemed interesting.

At the beginning of the meeting, Karen Zeleznak, the staff liaison for the Bloomington Advisory Board of Health, presented a long list of findings and summaries about issues the council had assigned the board to look into beforehand.

Zeleznak mentioned that a beach nearby--Bush Lake Beach--was being closely monitored and seemed to be at healthy levels again after a rise in E. coli last summer.

The mayor interrupted Zeleznak to ask her to clarify some points. The issue was already interesting to me because it dealt with public health, but when the mayor chimed in it became more so because he was obviously concerned with making sure residents knew that the beach was safe and the treatment worked.

There was not a lot of talk about what the treatment had been, so later that night I researched the city's Web page to find out what had happened.

The next morning I called Zeleznak and the city's Environmental Health Program Coordinator, Jeff Luedeman, to make sure I understood what the treatment had been and to verify that the beach would be open this summer.

Bacteria Levels Under Control at Bloomington Beach

An innovative treatment has reduced dangerous levels of E. coli at Bush Lake Beach to a level safe enough to open the beach for swimmers this summer, said Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead at a city council meeting Monday.

“I think that we were very successful at reducing the level of E. coli in the water,? Winstead said. He made his remarks after a presentation about current beach conditions from Bloomington’s Environment and Health advisor, Karen Zeleznak.

Warm weather, warm water and bird droppings all contributed to E. coli growth in 2006, causing the city to close the beach to all visitors for a portion of the summer season. The city council assigned the Advisory Board of Health to evaluate the situation.

Jeff Luedeman, the coordinator for Bloomington’s Environmental Health Program, said the city decided to try a new type of treatment for E. coli that attacked the bacteria where it is bred most: In the sand where seagulls congregate.

Between July 13 and Aug. 24 of last year, the city applied a diluted chlorine bleach solution onto the shore in a 12-foot swath from the water’s edge. Preliminary results show that the bacteria were reduced to well below the threshold required for beach closure.

The city expects Bush Lake Beach to remain open to swimmers this summer.

“City staff will continue to monitor water quality twice a week starting in late May through Labor Day weekend,? Luedeman said.

--Molly George

Stabbing in Popular Nightclub

A 20-year-old woman was stabbed at 1:15 this morning at a club in dowtown Minneapolis, reports Tim Halow of the Star Tribune.

Police say the unnamed victim had an argument with another woman earlier at the club Gay 90s. The woman later walked up the the victim while she was dancing with friends, then assaulted and stabbed her in the chest.

Hundreds of people were inside the club at the time, but police evacuated them so medical personnel could attend to the victim, who was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center.

Police arrested the suspect, a 21-year-old woman from Brooklyn Center. She has not been charged.

Police are also looking for a second suspect.

The Pioneer Press also covered this story. Nancy Yang wrote a very brief blurb (four sentences) about the stabbing and posted it on their Web site today at 7:13 AM. The Star Tribune's article was last updated at 11:04 AM today; the four hour difference is probably why there is such a notable discrepency between the two article's lengths.

It is also possible that the Pioneer Press may not have considered this story particularly newsworthy enough to garner more coverage.


March 20, 2007

Massive Pet Food Recall Shakes Owners

Ten pet deaths-one dog and nine cats-have been linked to a massive recall of canned food sold in North America.

The recall covers 60 million containers under 51 brands of dog food and 40 brands of cat food, including Iams, Nutro and Eukanuba.

"A small number" of cats and dogs have developed kidney failure after eating the affected products, said the Food and Drug Administration.

An investigation has focused on wheat gluten as the contaminated source, said Stephen F. Sundlog, an FDA veterinarian.

Menu Foods, an Emporia, Kan.-based company, said through a spokesperson it recalled the "cuts and gravy" products when reports of sick pets surfaced. The announcement is the largest recall for pet foods, said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota.


Missing Student's Body Found in Purdue Dorm

The body of Purdue University freshman Wade S. Steffey, 19, missing since Jan. 13, was found in a utility room at a dorm on campus.

Steffey was found in a high-voltage utility room in the Owen Hall dorm. He apparently died from accidental electrocution.

A utility worker discovered the body Monday when she was called to investigate a noise apparently coming from the room.

Purdue spokesperson Jeanne Norberg said that Steffey probably tripped over some wires while searching for his coat after attending a fraternity party over the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

After Steffey went missing, large searches were organized and the dorms were checked, including the utility rooms. Norberg said the location of Steffey's body, hidden behind a transformer, would have made it difficult to see him. To completely check the room, Norberg said all power to the residence hall would have had to be shut off.

An independent investigation will continue.


February 28, 2007

Camp SpongeBob?

Mall of America officials announced this morning they have signed an exclusive deal with the Nickelodeon network for branding-rights to the mall's amusement park.

The park, formerly known as Camp Snoopy, has been officially lacking mascots since failing to reach an agreement with the company that owns the Peanuts characters last year. The mall has been calling its large indoor rides and attractions area "The Park at MOA."

The deal could prove lucrative; SpongeBob SquarePants, one of its most popular cartoon characters, grossed $1.5 billion from toys, commercials and theme parks in 2004, according to Forbes.com. The partnership also may add fuel to the mall's plans for a $1.9 billion expansion that would about double its size and add a parking garage. The plan also seeks $234 million in state and local subsidies.


When You Gotta Go...

Anyone who has ever been denied access to an "employees only" restroom during an emergency now has less to worry about.

The Senate commerce committee passed the Restroom Access Act on Tuesday, to the relief of about 35,000 Minnesotans with bowel and bladder control problems.

The act would require stores to let medically needy people use their restrooms, even if they are for employees only.

Some people do not see the need for a law allowing access to restrooms. They say the law is just extra burden on store owners and isn't required because of simple human decency.

"It's hard to understand how somebody could deny someone bathroom access," said Mike Hickey, Minnesota director for the National Federation of Independent Business. "It would be nice to know what's the actual need here."

The Senate committee apparently was unconvinced by such agruments.

Employees who refuse to let such patrons use their facilities could be charged with a petty misdemeanor and a $100 fine.


February 21, 2007

Big Tobacco Gets Small Break

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned an $79.5 million lawsuit against Philip Morris today.

The case, Philip Morris USA v. Williams, tested the power of juries to impose large punitive awards against tobacco corporations in product-liability trials.

In their ruling, the justices decided to follow the precedent that punitive damages should typically match "actual" damages.

The case originated in Oregon from the family of a Jesse Williams, who died in 1997 from a smoking-related disease. A jury had originally awarded the family $800,000 in compensatory damages in 1991 and $79.5 million in punitive damages.

Williams smoked up to three packs a day for 47 years. Court records say Williams never believed that cigarettes were a health danger, until he got cancer. The Oregon jurors said Philip Morris engaged in fraud and negligence affecting a large number of people over five decades.


February 19, 2007

A Higher Cost for Beauty?

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn (D-Minneapolis), wants to extend Minnesota's 6.5 percent sales tax to cosmetic surgery and in-office procedures including chemical skin peels, laser hair removal, cosmetic injections and spider vein treatments.

Any person with the money for cosmetic surgery can afford to pay the tax, said Kahn.

Kahn's bill excludes medically necessary procedures, like as facial reconstruction after an accident. It also wouldn't apply to laser eye surgery.

New Jersey became the only state that taxes cosmetic surgery back in 2005, collecting an estimated $11 million this year. But cosmetic surgery taxes have been proposed in other states like Texas, Illinois and Washington. Kahn said the tax would raise about $7 million per year.

Most of that money would come from hardworking women trying to "do something for themselves once in a while," said Dr. Richard D'Amico, president-elect of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. He said 90 percent of cosmetic surgery patients are female, with a yearly income average of $60,000.

The Minnesota proposal is scheduled for its first hearing before a House tax panel today.


Two Men Shot Near Funeral Home

Two men were shot near a hmong funeral home in Maplewood last Saturday.

An unnamed gunman opened fire at about 10:40 p.m. in the parking lot outside Metro Funeral Home while the building was full of mourners, Maplewood police said Sunday.

The first victim, a 20-year-old man from Brooklyn Park, was shot in the abdomen while standing outside the building. He was taken to Regions Hospital and as of Sunday remained in intensive care, police said.

The second victim, a 40-year-old man driving by the scene, was shot in the left arm by a stray bullet. He was treated at Regions Hospital and was released Sunday.

Police Lt. David Kvam said the first victim appeared to be the intended target. No arrest has been made, but a suspect has been identified.