May 5, 2007

RASH OF ROBBERIES AT SOUTH MINNEAPOLIS GAS STATION

Cops Story
January 31, 2007

A south Minneapolis gas station was robbed at gunpoint on Friday. It was the second armed robbery in as many weeks, police say.
Four men, at least one brandishing a pistol, robbed Kevin’s Pro-Fuel on the corner of 38th Street and Bloomington Avenue, according to a report filed by Minneapolis Police.
Two weeks earlier, on January 5th, a man wielding a knife had held up the station. He has since been arrested by police.
Owner Kevin Geldert said that there had been no robberies for eight months prior to the incidents in January. He estimated about $200 in cash from the register and scratch-off lottery tickets were stolen in the most recent hold-up, and about $50 was stolen in the prior incident.
According to cashier September Johnson, who was working at the time of the most recent incident, a man entered the building shortly before close at 9 p.m.
“He paced around the back by the cooler for about 10 minutes, and when it came time to close, we shut off the lights and locked the entrance,? she said.
The suspect then pulled a gun and propped the door open to let two others in, she said. One man waited outside the door during the robbery.
“I just kept thinking, at any moment, this man could take my life,? Johnson said. “It’s been hard to come into work since then, especially at night.?
Police have collected the surveillance tapes and are investigating the case. Sgt. Wally Carlson said that crime has been increasing in the area.
“We don’t have any suspects right now, but the case is still under investigation,? he said.
Geldert, though, said he feels neglected by the police.
“This is the second time in two weeks we’ve been robbed, and no one [from the police station] has even called me about it,? he said. “[Carlson] just sent his partner out two days after to pick up the tapes.?
Despite the robberies, business continues as usual. Johnson said she’s more concerned about crime now, but has to keep working.
“I’m not gonna let some punk kids ruin what I have,? she said.

How I reported this story:
I suppose I came along this story in what would be a routine way if I covered this beat on a regular basis. I went down to City Hall, looked for a bunch of police records that I thought might make for interesting stories, and then I tried what a lot of our guest lecturers told us to do and went there. I actually had to go twice, because the first time I went there, September Johnson, one of the people I quoted, said that she wasn't supposed to talk to anyone about the robbery. I came back the next day when the owner, Kevin Geldert, was there, and while I thought I might be out of luck with the response Johnson had given me, both of them were exceedingly helpful in making time for me to speak with them. I had no idea that there had been two robberies in two weeks until I spoke until Geldert told me, which became an important element in the story.

Main Challenge in writing the story: This would certainly have been contacting the police for a quote. I went back to City Hall to interview the cop that Geldert told me was working on the case, but the people at the desk didn't seem too enthused about helping me with my journalistic exercise. I tried to be as polite as possible, and they gave me a number for the officer's telephone line. He also did not seem too enthused about my exercise, probably seeing that in a few years, I'll be paid to be a pain in his behind doing something like this. He nonetheless spent a minute or two with me on the phone. After writing the story, I realized that I had not thought to tell the officer that Geldert was, to put it delicately, concerned with how the investigation was going. While I don't doubt that that information would not have made him too happy with me, I see now that if I was going to mention it in the story like I did, I should have given him a chance to respond. After this, I spent more time thinking up questions in advance for sources so this wouldn't happen again.

Alternative storytelling approaches: Two things I would liked to have done for the story would be to have tape recorded my conversations with the officer and Geldert and Johnson at the gas station, and to have brought my digital camera with. I have no aptitude for video technology and would not want to appear in any videos, partially because I think that then makes reporters part of the news and that's not good. Also, video stuff is cumbersome and I think could actually inhibit a reporters ability to get up and go cover stories if they're worried about lighting and that kind of stuff. Pictures and audio wouldn't be that tough to do, and I think could have enhanced the readers understanding of the story in a positive way.

April 28, 2007

NBC DEFENDS, THEN BACKS OFF USE OF KILLER'S VIDEO

This week, the New York Times reported that media organizations were backing off showing the videos of Seung-Hui Cho, the gunman in last week's killings at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Va. The decision to cut back footage of Cho came as a departure from the previous position of NBC news, which was a vigorous defense of their airing of the footage.

I believe that NBC news has made a horrible mistake in airing the video of the killer, for a number of reasons.

First: They were in a unique position as the only recipient of the video. They didn't have to worry about other news organizations beating them to the video or pictures. They could have made a decision not to air any of Cho's "Multimedia manifesto" and it would have died right there. They could describe to people what the video was like, and then say they don't want to give these madmen a forum to vent their hate at the world, and therefore they won't show it, and then no one else could either. Instead of the widespread criticism, they'd likely be praised for making this decision.

Second: This isn't self-censorship, its news judgment. Most people have absolutely no idea how the press works or what goes into the decisions on whether to air disturbing video or not. In the past, they only time news organizations have printed these kinds of things, (Zodiac Killer, Son of Sam, Unibomber) has been when they had been threated with more violence from the person in question if they did not publish. Now, this doesn't fulfill the task of preventing a person from being further incensed, and may in fact contribute to more violence in the future, when impressionable, disturbed young people watch the video, read his plays and generally sees the notoriety easily available by just filmng yourself and then committing a terrible crime like happened at Virginia Tech. Now, NBC is saying that the people have a right to know what this madman was thinking, but for all the hours that the video was aired, does it really change our initial understanding? Will it prevent another tragedy like this. The answer is absolutely not, and therefore it should be only with the most compelling and dire reason that such stuff should be disseminated. There is no mystery to unravel. This was simply a madman who, as the Austin Daily Texan put it when Charles Wittman made his name infamous in 1966, "Filed suit against humanity and prosecuted his case with death until he too was killed."
This standard has not been met here.

Third: When, not if, a shooting like this happens again, and news organizations are bombarded with videos from the killers, people will blame not just NBC but the entire media's role in this tragedy for inciting another one, and their claims won't be that far off base. With public opinion of the press consistently ranking lower than President Bush's (which is saying an awful lot about how people feel about the press). News organizations should be cautious not to step on this kind of land mine. In addition, I quote here from the New York Times "One aspect that clearly irritated many of NBC's competitors was the impression of the logo ''NBC News,'' which the network burned into every image from the material." When NBC decided to use this footage as a business edge over the competition, its hard to believe that they're not doing this for ratings, instead of their "People's right to know" song and dance.

Teen Shot Riding Metro Transit Bus

A teen was shot and killed while riding a Metro-Transit bus on Saturday night, police said on Sunday. Family of the victim identified him as 16-year-old Earl Freeman. It was the third death on or near Metro-Transit stops since March 8th. Police believe the killing may be gang-related. I would say the Star Tribune's coverage of this story was the best of the local outlets. As per usual, the online content didn't have any photos or maps of where the event occurred, but the story's lede was easily the best at capturing what the scene may have been like that night.

"Spurred on by an apparent dispute between two groups of young people, a teenager leaned inside a Metro Transit bus in downtown St. Paul early Sunday and fatally shot a 16-year-old boy in the chest, police said."

This line lent some imagery to the kinds of incidents that I think needs more descriptive. People read things like "Person killed....." or things of that ilk, and it doesn't really stick with them, or allow them to have a personal understanding of what may have happened. A few years ago, I read a story about a 11-year old Tyesha Edwards, who had been sitting at her kitchen table when gunfire from a drive-by shooting struck and killed her. I don't think I'll ever forget reading that. Those kinds of details are important to make the news hit people, instead of just reciting the facts given by the police.

The Pioneer Press story did a good job of interviewing sources not reached by the Star Tribune, including Freeman's aunt, and a girl who was the mother of his child (!). There's a lot of very tragic elements in play in this story, and I hope reporters try to find them.

The MPR story I felt was lacking because it really didn't talk about that particular shooting at all, and instead interviewed people from all over the Twin Cities on whether they felt safe on the bus or not. People often criticize MPR for being the news of choice by upper-middle class white liberals, and while I don't think that is true, these kinds of "how do you feel" stories seem like thats who they're directed at. As I said before, this individual incident has so many very sad events going on, it could make very riveting radio, and this story seems like a cop out.

The Route 74 bus that Freeman was riding at the time of his death runs from Maplewood to the Light Rail Station in Minneapolis.


April 18, 2007

Bomb Scare at U of M Campus

A bomb scare at the University of Minnesota campus evacuated eight buildings and canceled classes for the rest of the day. A student found a note describing the bomb threat around noon, and notified police around 12:45, according to the Minnesota Daily. The bomb threat comes just a day after the killing of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Va.

I'm proud to say that the Daily's coverage of this story was both faster and more detailed than any of the other news outlets. In addition to the story on the threat itself, the Daily was the first, and as far as I've seen, the only news organization to obtain a photograph of the note, as well as reaction from students. While this story is probably the biggest one the Daily will cover all year, and all of its reporters and staff were at the scene of the event, its still nice to see us turn out a more comprehensive story that papers with more resources and experience..

Here are links to the Star Trib, Pioneer Press and MPR stories and President Bob Bruininks announcement about the threat.

U.S. Attorneys voluntarily demote themselves

U.S. attorneys working out of the Minneapolis office have voluntarily demoted themselves, citing the managerial style of their supervisor U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose, who was appointed in February 2006 by President Bush. Analysts have called such a resignation exceedingly rare, and the issue has added fuel to the fire already brewing in Washington D.C. over the politicization of the U.S. Attorneys Office. The office has said it will investigate the circumstances surrounding the departure of the attorneys. The Pioneer Press had the best coverage of this story, followed by MPR and then the Star Tribune.

The Pioneer Press covered the event adequately, and then added that the Washington-basd officials are actually heading to Minnesota not to "help" the District Office here, as stated by the Star Tribune, but actually to try and talk the resigning officials out of their decisions. The MPR story covered their resignations well and had some good quotes from national figures like Sen. Chuck Shumer from New York, but didn't look into the officials coming to MN to check things out very much. The Star Tribune story did a good job of investigating a memo that supposedly caused the rift at the office, something lacking from both other stories, but also had a very Press Release-y feel to the opening few paragraphs, and was somewhat inaccurate in how it covered the officials arriving.

Possibly the most alarming fact surrounding Paulose that didn't make it into any of these stories was the fact that her office had drawn up a list of "trouble-reporters" that had apparently circulated and one reported had found a copy of this. You can watch the reporter confront her on this in an unedited video provided by KSTP.com. It occurs about 2/3 of the way through the video. Its actually kind of funny watching Paulose look uncomfortable, clearly not knowing how to respond when a reported is basically saying I have this proof of what you're doing, what do you have to say about it? This should have found its way into these stories if it was indeed true.


April 3, 2007

Supreme Court Rules Against EPA, White House

On Monday, the Supreme Court delivered a 5-4 ruling that declared that the Environmental Protection Agency must regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles unless it can provide a scientific reason why it should not. The case stems from states and environmental groups suing the EPA for its refusal to regulate the emissions under a narrow reading of the 1970 Clean Air Act, which names air pollutants as under the jurisdiction of the act, but did not mention carbon dioxide by name.

The ruling was a defeat to the EPA and its reluctance to act on the global warming threat posed by carbon dioxide emissions, according to analysts, and by extension the Bush Administration, whose appointees head the EPA.

I examined probaby the three largest and most influential news sources on this issue, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio. Of the three, the New York Times story was the best because it most clearly laid out what this ruling means for the future of the governments approach to global warming. It also more clearly explains the position of the dissenters, led by Chief Justice John Roberts. The Supreme Court's web site is remarkably bad, and I couldn't even find a proper link to the case when searching the site, but Cornell University also archives Court cases, and their site was much clearer that the SCOTUS site.


Tragic End to Search for Red Lake Boys

The bodies of two boys who went missing shortly before Thanksgiving were found on Sunday, according to numerous press reports. Authorities believe the boys' deaths were caused after the boys wandered out onto the ice on First Thunders Lake near their home, and either froze or drowned in the icy waters. Searches began after the boys' disappearance in November.

The three stories I looked at included the MPR, Star Tribune and an AP story run in the Pioneer Press.

The Star Tribune had by far the most comprehensive coverage of the event, and I would also say the best. While the main details were all in the AP story, it failed to bring any kind of gravitas to the situation. This is the same community that was rocked by the student killings in 2005, and a number of hardships before and since then. The Star Tribune edged out MPR too, not because it was too general and "nationalized" like AP stories tend to be, but because it seemed focus almost entirely on the search for the boys rather than the reaction of the community, and the human element in this story trumps everything else about it.

March 25, 2007

Congdon Heiress Arrested in Arizona

Marjorie Congdon Hagen, the heiress to the Congdon family fortune, was arrested in Arizona and charged with theft, forgery, computer tampering and fraud. Hagen, 74, first ran into trouble with the law when her adoptive mother, Elisabeth Congdon of the Congdon mining family in Duluth, was killed in 1977. Details on her arrest were not available in any of the stories I found on this incident, but the difference between Star Tribune coverage and Associated Press coverage was significant-enough to merit writing about.

The Associated Press story was datelined in Tucson, Arizona, and was probably written by a person with only a passing knowledge of the events of the Congdon murder, if any at all before writing the story. The Star Tribune story, in addition to the more lively writing, benefited from the fact that it was able to work the Congdon-family history into the story in a way that made it more relevant to the local community. This person's identity and past is clearly the most important aspect of the story, and the Star Tribune did a good job of making this apparent. One of the possible places to find information on this story if you were a reporter would be the book Glensheen's Daughter, which details Marjorie Congdon Hagan's life and could provide the kind of details that made the Star Trib story so much better than the AP one. While the Star Tribune writer was able to use the fact that anyone reading the Star Tribune would probably know a bit about the Congdon murders, a resource like this book could have probably helped the AP writer out.

Legislature Passes Gas Tax

The Minnesota legislature passed an omnibus transportation bill over the weekend to raise the state gas by 10 cents, moving it up to 30 cents per gallon from 20 cents, and after two years would increase the tax at the rate of inflation. The vote went largely on party lines, with DFLers voting for the tax and Republicans against in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Governor Tim Pawlenty has stated that he will veto any gas tax increase, and while the bill passed by large majorities in both chambers, it did not reach the supermajority necessary to override a veto.

Nearly every media outlet in the Twin Cities has reported on this bill, but the best stories I could find were the MPR pieces on it. The Senate passed the bill on Friday, and the House passed it on Saturday, so most newspapers issued a story both days detailing the differences between the two bills. The MPR story after the house bill passed did the best job boiling down the issue for the public, saying "The key question is whether the committee can craft a proposal that will either be acceptable to the governor or have enough support to override his veto," about the conference committee that will hear the bill. Many times, people don't understand that each chamber's bill may be different, sometimes only slightly, and sometimes dramatically. A conference committee must then resolve the differences, and this story did the best job of explaining that to the public. The Star Tribune and two Pioneer Press stories on the House and the Senate passing it, were both good but not as clear as the MPR one.

Here is the text of the bill.


Three dead, no suspects in St. Paul shooting

Three people were shot and killed in their home early on Friday morning. Police have no suspects, but believe that the incident was not random, and that the victims may have known their assailants. There has been quite a bit of coverage on this story, and between the MPR, Star Tribune, and Pioneer Press story, I would say the Star Tribune did the best job of reporting here. The MPR story had all the facts of the case, but few quotes and not much by the way of any emotional color, but their story came out the day of the killings and their web site hasn't published an updated story. The Pioneer Press and Star Trib both quoted the Police Chief at length, and neighbors and friends, but the Star Trib's coverage was better because the Pioneer Press relied on too many of the "she always made you smile" kinds of quotations that neither help people understand the story, or shed any light on the people involved. Both were printed in the Sunday editions of the paper, and were longer than typical news stories, but the Star made better use of this space.
According to all the stories, police have no suspects, but somewhat puzzlingly have no information on their web site about this case. After an incident that can worry people like this one has, a tip line or information for neighbors might be expected somewhere.

March 9, 2007

Pawlenty Visits Troops in Iraq

Governor Tim Pawlenty made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Thursday to express solidarity with the troops, and examine the situation. In an interview during the trip, Pawlenty said that he now supports President Bush's troop surge plan, which he had previously been skeptical about. This is Pawlenty''s third trip to Iraq since he began his first term as Governor in 2003.
I would say on this story the Star Tribune was far and away better than the AP story that ran in the Rochester Post-Bulletin. While both stories contained the same facts, the Star Trib story did a much better job of capturing the scene than the AP. It would be interesting to find out whether Conrad DiFiebre was with Gov. Pawlenty on the trip, or whether he relied on other information to draw the scene. While the overly elaborate prose doesn't always work in news stories, and can in fact ruin them, I would say overall this story does a fine job of explaining what the Governor's trip was like and the reasons for his visit.

New Twist on Twins Stadium Development

The Star Tribune reported on Wednesday that a proposed parking ramp for coaches, players and rich ticket holders may be the key to finishing the deal with Land Partners, the owners of the site. Hennepin County and Land Partners have reportedly been millions of dollars apart on the sale price, but Sam Grabarski, Downtown Council President, says that the increased compensation from the ramp could end up being enough for the two parties to agree.

The main problem with this story is that the headline deals with this possible fix, but has very few details to explain how the parking ramp for these select people would work. While certainly a newsworthy item, a bit more digging could have done some good here.

March 8, 2007

Minneapolis Library Board Falls on Budgetary Knife, Votes to Merge With Hennepin Co.

This week, the Minneapolis Library Board voted 7-1 in favor of merging with the Hennepin County Library system. While the Hennepin County system routinely receives exceptional marks for its services, the Minneapolis system has been mired in budgetary trouble for the last few years. The added revenue from the country will allow Minneapolis to open three libraries closed this year because of budget constraints. One problem I found with the coverage of this story is that the reporter failed to interview the chair of the committee investigating and negotiating the possible merger, Minnetonka city manager John Gunyou. I know this because I reported on this story for an editorial in the Daily. All this action took place under his direction, and it seems kind of sloppy not to quote him in the story.

February 25, 2007

Farmington Considers New $24 Million Sports Complex

This May, voters in Farmington will consider whether to build a $24 million sports complex next to the as-yet-uncompleted $100 million new high school. The sports complex would include an Olympic size pool, tennis courts, a four court auxiliary gymnasium and two ice rinks capable of seating 1,000 guests. Overall I'd say the Pioneer Press had the better story, because they did a better job of seeking out comment from people opposed to the plan. The Star Tribune's story seems a little to conversational, and while they covered the lawsuit that is only briefly mentioned in the Press story, they don't include any real disagreement about the plan at all.

Man Held in Killing of Mankato Woman

A 32-year-old man is being held on suspicion of killing a woman at the Chatham Square Apartments in Mankato, according to the Star Tribune. The Mankato Free-Press has a more extensive story here. The 53-year-old woman's name was Judith Kay Ellgen, and her body was discovered shortly after midnight on Saturday. Police suspect the man, Jody Kay Miller, being held knew Ellgen, but would not elaborate on their relationship. Both had telephone numbers listed as the Chatham Square Apartments but did not live together. The story says that police had a theory about what happened but refused to disclose it. More details are expected to be released in the coming days.