Recently in Honors Analysis Category

Reporter Ryan Gabrielson covers issues concerning for the California Watch, which is founded by the Center for Investigative Reporting. On Saturday, I interviewed Gabrielson and asked him about the use of databases for his last story about mishandled sexual abuse cases in California development centers.

Gabrielson said that the investigation started with a tip that there was overtime abuse by the police force at the development centers. He said he wanted to examine the police force's caseload to understand how they operate.

One of the difficulties was that he could not request all of the criminal investigation files or a log of the criminal investigation files. He said that they are confidential in California and that he had to find an outside source to find information.

"The department of developmental services that runs the police force is a nightmare to deal with in terms of public records," Gabrielson said. "They stall, they deny, and they go to law. It's a mess."

This department also prohibited its employees from speaking to the press, Gabrielson said. He said that all of the records about the internal cases came from people in the system and that they risked their jobs to provide him with the data.

The main difficulty with using large sets of data is to clean them, Gabrielson said. Sometimes this process takes a couple of weeks and he said that it takes far longer to clean the data than analyze it.

Gabrielson said that students who want to become reporters should take a statistics class in college. He said that it was important to understand the method that the data follows. Students also need to learn the software, Gabrielson said. They should definitely know excel, he said, and a statistics analysis package would help as well.

The murder of two high school students in Little Falls, Minn. on Thanksgiving gained a lot of attention from the press. Ben Garvin from the Pioneer Press was one of the photojournalists that covered the aftermath of the event. Many photographs that are taken after a death include family members in grief. For this interview, I asked Garvin about the ethics surrounding photographing people in grief who may not want their privacy invaded and do not want their photo taken.

"There's a fine line between taking advantage of people's vulnerabilities and telling their story," Garvin said about photographing family members of the deceased. He said that people are often skeptical of the media and that many people have been upset with him in the past. Once people see that you are just interested in telling their story and not taking advantage of them, they are usually okay, Garvin said.

Garvin said that he never wants to take a photo of somebody who does not want him to and that shooting across the parking lot with a long lens camera is never a good situation. He said that the one exception to this rule is when the person is an important person who has been convicted and has been a high-profiled criminal. He said the "ethics get slippery" in that situation and that he does try to get a photo if the criminal has a long history and has been trying to avoid the camera.

"If you have any gut feelings that this may not be a good idea, then you're right," Garvin said. While he said that you should trust your heart in deciding what is good and bad, he also said that there is never a solid line.

He said that the most difficult part about photographing people in vulnerable people is that he feels like he is a part of a "swarm of bees." He said that if it is a situation where many photographers and media are there, it makes it harder to be sensitive.

"You don't have a special right to be an asshole just because you have a camera," Garvin said.

I interviewed Abdul Mohamed, the Public Relations leader of Ka Joog, on Friday to ask about the Minnesota Public Radio's news feature about their group and how that reflected the cultural identity of the group.

Mohamed said that the reporter represented the group "pretty well" and that it gave a "positive representation of the culture." While it reflected the cultural identity of the group, he also said that the story focused a lot on the group getting the FBI Director's Community Leadership Award and what the group has done more than about the culture.

He also said that the story effectively focused on how the community would regard his organization getting the award and worked as an "eye opener for the community" about this group.

While many other organizations, such as the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune, wrote a feature about his group, Mohamed said that all the stories were pretty similar. He said that the stories shed light on the origins of the organization, the role of the organization in the community, and how the award affects their aims and goals.

"We want things to be felt by the community," Mohamed said and said that he would not have changed anything about the story. While there were other things that were going on with the group that were not mentioned in the story, he said that they would have been unnecessary and would of detracted from the story.

Honors: Interview with Doug Belden about including polls

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Doug Belden, a politics reporter at the Pioneer Press, frequently includes information from polls into his articles and recently covered the marriage amendment issue.

Belden said that he finds new polls to mention in stories every five or six weeks and that he tends to mention the poll in a story if it has new figures and shows a change from the last poll on the topic. When he includes a poll in the story, he mentions how the poll has changed from previous polls, the margin of error, when the poll was conducted, who conducted the poll, and anything he knows about the bias of the poll.

In the case of a polarized issue, Belden said that he usually tries to pass over the internal polls created by the campaigns and instead find polls that were done independently. He said that it is important to give less weight to these internal campaigns as the polls are biased and could be trying to sway the voters. For example, he mentioned that an internal poll that was released close to election day concerning the voter ID amendment. In this case, he said he would not use it because it is an internal poll and since it was so close to the election day, it could be trying to sway people.

Belden said that polls were important to use in a story because it gives people a sense of how popular the issue is. He also said, however, that they are frequently wrong and that it is hard to decide how important a poll is to the story. The hardest part in including a poll is to answer for people how much weight they should attach to the poll when he isn't sure himself, Belden said.

"The most important thing to consider is the organization," Belden said. He emphasized the importance of researching the organization behind the polling in order to use it effectively as a source. He said that it is important to read up on what other people have said about the organization and to get a feel for how the organization is regarded to the public.

I interviewed Pamela Miller, the assistant metro night editor at the Star Tribune, to ask her about the process of writing obituaries. When I called, she was just working on the obituary of Robert Anderson that I used for my analysis post.

At the Star Tribune, Miller explained that there is no longer a regular obituary writer and that the obituaries rotate through the reporters. Miller said that the average obituary is written around a week after the person's death and the reporter on average gets 2-3 hours to write it. When the paper had a regular obituary writer, she said that obituaries were often written the day after the person's death.

"The hardest part is taking a person's life and condensing it to 16 to 18 inches," Miller said. She explained that you have so much information to consider and that it can be difficult to find what to focus on. The most important thing to consider, however, when writing an obituary is "how does this person's personal life parallel the period that they lived in?" Miller said. She discussed how it is important to see how their life reflects the broader history and to look for someone's character and not just accomplishments.

While obituaries generally take a positive tone and focus on the person's accomplishments, Miller said some events, such as the person being in jail, are still important to the story. Even if a family member asks her to exclude that part, she said that she tells the family member that they put in what is most newsworthy. Therefore, if the event is relevant and is an important aspect of the person's life, she said she would put it in.

Another decision the Star Tribune makes is whether or not to mention the cause of death when it is a suicide. Miller said this spurs a big discussion but that in most cases, the suicide is mentioned. One reason she said that she would exclude it is if the story is likely to create copycat suicides. In most cases, Miller said that the suicide is mentioned but the reporter treats it carefully and moves on to the person's accomplishments.

Miller also said that to avoid fact errors, reporters should always talk to somebody who has worked with the person in their profession so you can verify what they did in their business life. She mentioned one obituary where she had just talked to the family, who told her that the person had created the idea for the Hamm's Beer Bear advertisement. She received a call later, however, that corrected her and told her that the person had been exaggerating this to his family for years and that in reality, multiple people created the idea. Therefore, she said it was vital to talk to at least one family member and one professional colleague in an obituary.

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