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May 4, 2008

Analysis: Computer-Assisted Reporting

Here's a link to a investigative report that News Channel 5 in Nashville, Tenn. did about flammable wiring on airplanes.

Phil Williams, the chief investigator for the channel, did a nine-month investigation that followed the recent grounding or airplanes so that their wiring could be inspected. The reporter ultimately discovered that a lot of the wiring had a history of almost-explosive sparks. The story details the different types of wire that are explosive, what the FAA did about it, and how it affects fliers.

News Channel 5 used computer-assisted reporting, or CAR, to help with the story.

Consider the following passage:

"But our investigation discovered reports filed by the airlines that, safety advocates say, are warning signs.

"Those reports, called 'service difficulty reports,' contain dozens of references to Kapton's 'burned wires.'

"In one report, a 'wire bundle that runs under [the captain's] feet has numerous wires burned thru and others [are] fire damaged.'

"And in another, 'wiring burned holes in [the] fuselage.'"

It is unlikely that the investigators sat down and looked at the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of reports about airplanes filed with the FAA over the last few decades. They most likely used a database to sift through these records, entering keywords in order to find the information that they needed.

The website for the article also contains links where the readers can read the actual reports themselves and look at the list of aircraft that have the faulty wiring.

Using computer-assisted reporting lends credibility to the story by giving specific facts and numbers to back up the reporter's statements. The reporter does not have to rely on anecdotal reporting and can tell the story more effectively.

April 13, 2008

Analysis: Diversity

Take a look at the article Questions remain after fatal police chase in Minneapolis from Tuesday's Star Tribune.

The article is about a police chase that ended in the death of Hanna Abukar, a member of Minneapolis' Somali community. A 15-year-old boy was fleeing the police when he crashed his car into Abukar's, killing her and injuring her son and another boy.

The report does not use stereotypes about Somalis or immigrants. Terry Collins, the reproter, actually goes and talks to several Somalis, including Abukar's husband, in order to get all the information correct. He also uses police information to get the facts straight.

I learned several things from this article. Before reading this story I did not know very much about Somali or Islamic traditions. Collins' article taught me that Muslims do not speak for three days after the death of a loved one out of respect, something I didn't know before.

This article just goes to show that even crime reports can give valuable information about the customs and traditions of culturally or racially diverse groups.

April 6, 2008

Analysis: Numbers

Let's take a closer look at the Minneapolis graduation rates story I blogged about on Tuesday. This story is full of numbers. Numbers can be a pretty confusing element of news stories for readers, so it's the journalists job to break them down and make them easy to understand.

One of the elements in the story is the graduation rate for the city of Minneapolis. The reporter gives the city's rate (43.7 percent) and then compares it the 50-city average (51.8 percent). He then does the math for you, telling you that Minneapolis's rate is 8 points below the average. This comparison makes the figures easy to grasp.

It's important to give comparisons between figures when reporting on numbers. Minneapolis's graduation rate is 43.7 percent. So what? Is that high? Is that low? The reader just doesn't know unless you give him something to compare it to.

Further along in the article the journalist compares the city's graduation rate to the surrounding suburbs' graduation rate, making it easy for the reader to see the difference between the two.

You may have heard the adage that "figures lie and liars figure." That's why it's important to say where you get your information. In this article, the numbers came from the NGO America's Promise Alliance, a reputable organization, as well as from the Minneapolis School District, another reputable source. The reader is more likely to believe the numbers presented if they come from a trustworthy source.

March 30, 2008

Analysis: Obituaries

The New York Times published an obituary on Sunday for the photojournalist Dith Pran.

Douglas Martin, the other of the obituary, chose to start with a standard lead: he gave the name of the deceased, a line about his life, when he died and where, and his age.

The second paragraph tells what Pran died of. The source he uses is Sydney H. Schanberg, a "friend" of Pran's. A journalist always wants to use a reputable source when reporting a cause of death, usually a close family member or doctor. Martin must have felt that Schanberg, Pran's journalistic partner, was trustworthy enough to use as a source in a published article.

The next nine paragraphs detail Pran's "claim to fame." He was an important photojournalist documenting the brutality of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge government in the 1970s. Douglas uses Schanberg as a source for much of this information.

The next 9 paragraphs are the chronology of Pran's life, telling where he was born, his upbringing in Cambodia, his education, and his career.

Douglas then gives a few paragraphs about Pran's spouse and children.

The obituary is not a simple resume because it contains quotes from Pran's friends and Pran himself. These additions give life to the story and make it more interesting.

March 9, 2008

Analysis: Event Coverage

The Thursday issue of the Minnesota Daily ran an advance for the 15th annual Women with Vision film festival at the Walker Art Center.

The advance gives the reader all the facts he or she needs to know: when the event is, where it is, how much it will cost, etc. Sheryl Mousley, the curator of the exhibit, is one of the sources for the article, giving the reporter several quotations to use in the story.

Although this story's main purpose is to give the reader basic information about the film festival, it puts an angle on the story by looking at the way the event serves as a "telescope to other cultures."

March 2, 2008

Analysis: Press Conference

Althought it barely made the headlines this week, the story about Ralph Nader's choosing Matt Gonzalez as his running mate is a good opportunity to explore the relationships between press releases and published articles.

The Thursday press release from Nader's press office describes who Gonzalez is, his accomplishments, his education, and large amounts of the transcript of what Nader actually said at the press conference.

A Friday article in the San Francisco Chronicle opens with the following lead: "Ralph Nader's choice of San Francisco lawyer and activist Matt Gonzalez as his running mate isn't likely to propel the consumer advocate to victory in his fifth presidential campaign since 1992."

Clearly this lead isn't hard news story; it adds a little analysis and insight. Rather than simply reporting Nader's statements, this author decided mix the news about Nader's choice with some analysis.

The story does contain many of the quotations from the press release, but not all of them. The writer chose to include only the most salient quotes that would fit in her story.

The article continues by adding a lot of history of Nader's past campaigns in order to give the reader who may be unfamiliar with Nader a better understanding of his recent actions and history.

The writer's story is not a simple, boring "a guy said something" piece. By adding analysis and history she creates a story that is both interesting and informative.

February 24, 2008

Analysis: Updates

CNN reported the story about the attacks at the U.S. Embassy on Thursday, with an update on Sunday.

The Thursday article lays out the facts as they were known at that point: what happened, who was involved, specific numbers as they were available, a few statements from U.S. and Serbian officials, response elsewhere in the country, and a little background information about Kosovo's independence.

The second story advances the news by telling the reader what happened to the protesters--the Serbian government arrested 200 people involved in the riots. The story also talks about more violence in the region, summarizes what the Thursday article reported, and reports the state of the embassies and consulates in the region after the violence.

The update is helpful because it fills in the gaps that the Thursday article wasn't able to provide and satisfies the reader's curiosity about the aftermath of the incidents.

February 17, 2008

Analysis: Structure

Take a closer look at Friday's story about the child's meat grinder accident.

The author decided to not to structure his story in the typical inverted pyramid format, putting the most important information first and the next most important information second, then the third, etc. Instead, he chose to write his story in a prose format.

He begins with the sentence, "Sue Krumrey had funneled the first of three tubs of beef trimmings into a whirring, motorized grinder. She reached behind her to grab the second tub." This does not answer the typical who/what/where/when questions that are usually addressed in the lead. He then goes on to tell the story of the accident as it progresses, from the time the mother was using the grinder up to the time of the surgery.

This is an effective way to write the story. Even though the information is not presented in order from most important to least important, the reader still gets all the information he or she needs to know. The prose-style narrative effectively gets the reader to continue reading. It's suspensful, just like a novel or short story might be.

February 10, 2008

Analysis: Attribution

The Kansas death penalty story I blogged about on Friday contains several sources, including death penalty experts, a court opinion written by justices, a murdered child's mother, Republican Gov. Dane Heineman, and the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Some of the sources, were named, such as Gov. Dane Heineman and Executive Director Richard Dieter. The rest of the sources were more vague. "Death penalty officials" could be anyone. Are these university professors that research capital punishment? Are they members of an advocacy group like the Death Penalty Information Center? The reader doesn't know for certain. Similarly, the author chooses not to reveal the judges and justices by name, but the attribution is still credible because court opinions are public record and can be accessed by anyone.

The sources are clustered together. The reader would be confused if the author chose to quote a source at the beginning of the article and then again several paragraphs down. Clustering puts similar information together and helps organize the story.

The author chooses to use several direct quotes from reputable sources, which adds credibility to the information. His attributions are clear and effective.

Most of the information in this story is not attributed to a source specifically, but is either historical information or public record that doesn't need to be attributed in order to give it veracity.

February 3, 2008

Analysis: Leads

Here are two news leads for the Australian Aborigines story I blogged about last week, the first from the New York Times and the second from the Associated Press, as printed in the Minnesota Daily:

"The new government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says it will apologize for past mistreatment of Australia’s Aboriginal minority when Parliament convenes next month, addressing an issue that has blighted race relations in the country for years."

"As a girl, Mari Melito Russell felt out of place. She was darker than the other kids at school, she felt more comfortable in the forest than her suburban home and she had vivid dreams of an Aboriginal woman beckoning her."

Suppose we had no idea what these two stories, dealing with the same issue, were going to be about. The first lead from the New York Times answers the four questions: 1) who (Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister); 2) when (next month); 3) where (Australia); and 4) what (an apology to Aborigines).

The AP lead takes a different approach. This lead is an anecdote about an Aboriginal girl and her life in suburban city in Australia. It reads like prose; it doesn't answer the four questions right away but instead chooses to open like a story and then relay the hard facts further down the page.

So why would these two writers choose to start their stories in such different ways? It's a matter of style. One author thought it best to write a traditional story whereas the other decided to take a more colorful approach. Obviously not every lead has the same format. If every lead were the same, the publication would become difficult to read. Imagine if every lead were like the AP example--the reader would have to sift through vignette after vignette to get to the meat of the story. Conversely, if every lead were straight facts like the New York Times example, the reader might find the newspaper to be dull and drab.

These aren't the only two ways to write a lead. There are countless more. But whatever way the author chooses to write the lead, the goal is always the same: to engage the author in the material right from the start and to get him or her to read the second paragraph.