Backgrounding people

The Nexis quiz is here. There are six questions; I’ll give you ten minutes!

This is our final research session of the semester. To round out your introduction to Nexis, I’m going to show you a brief demonstration of the people-finding capabilities of the non-academic version of Nexis—available to you in the library. I’ll also seek to familiarize you with the extensive business information available on the site, as well as how to employ the search terms “nexterms” and “atleast7”.

During my last session, we discussed a few ways to locate people. Today, we’re going to cover the no-less important task of making sure the people you locate can be trusted. We will draw on three cases from the New York Times: Margaret Seltzer, Amorita Randall and Edgar Martins. After understanding what went wrong, we’ll discuss ways that you might have avoided the same mistakes.

Then we’ll briefly tour through some electronic resources that can help you verify that a person is telling you the truth:

1) has a reverse phone lookup and reverse email lookup function, as well as an easy-to-use tool for locating property information. (There are charges with this site).

2) Tracking a person’s ISP information from their email can help you locate from where the person is emailing you. I’ll mention a couple of ways I’ve seen ISP tracking used in news research.

3) is a great site that allows you to track the influence of money on politics. Use it before you write about a politician’s support of a particular policy; see what industries the candidate has relied on in the past for financial support.

4) This licensed occupation tool can help you find the proper licensing board to confirm someone’s profession.

That’s all. I’ve enjoyed working with you all, and I want to be a resource to you as you end the semester. Please feel free to reach out by email or phone with any research questions. Also please don’t be shy to draw on the expertise of Barbara Gray in the library!

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“Too Good To Check”

This is a nice piece by Tom Friedman on the importance of fact-checking and the dangers of uninformed demagoguery.

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Finding the right people

Today’s lesson seeks to supplement Barbara Gray’s excellent lesson on social media. We’ll briefly transition from her lesson by using the realtime social media search engine, Topsy. Then we’re going to discuss some non-social-media techniques to track people down.

Scenario 1: You have the name of a person you want to reach—or the address where an incident took place. With this information, we’re going to practice using ReferenceUSA. It’s not only a useful resource for locating residential listings; it has a helpful business directory.

The non-academic version of Nexis, available through Barbara in the library, has a public records search function that is a much more precise resource for locating people. It allows you to find current and past addresses, phone numbers, relatives, and voting and property records. Don’t be shy to visit the library!

Scenario 2: You need an academic or a policy expert who can speak knowledgeably about something. Nicholas quoted two professors of forensic psychology in his recent CD story. How did he find them? Several resources for finding experts are available through our Research Center wiki here. We’ll briefly tour some of them. I often use Google Books to help locate people with expertise; we’ll discuss how. Then we’ll discuss how we might find an expert using a news search in Nexis, followed by a quick practice session. For top-down sources in city government, the New York City Green Book is an invaluable resource. (It is only available in paper form; we have one in the library.)

Scenario 3: You have the broader story idea but you don’t yet have the people to populate it. Let’s say you’re writing a piece on crime against seniors in Dyker Heights, as Gosia recently did. She began her story with an anecdotal lede about the Bunescus—a couple in their 60s who had been robbed in broad daylight while they were home. How did she find this couple?

One takeaway from today:

Sources are often more willing to talk to you if they are contacted first from within their own circle of trust. A good case study is Robert Worth’s New York Times piece, “Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?” The Yemeni tribesman who provides the remarkable details at the beginning of the piece was contacted through his employer and friend in Sana.

In my own pieces on undocumented immigrants in the American healthcare system or in two stories that involved disability, I was also able to gain access to the characters in the story only through introductions by others who knew and trusted me.

To finish, we’ll discuss continued barriers you’ve faced in gaining access to sources—as well as any questions you may have. In the last lesson on December 7th, we’ll go into further depth about how to find information on your sources that they might not disclose to you. Jack Styczynski’s helpful handout on backgrounding resources is here.

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Checklist for daybook story

Here in digital form is Wayne’s checklist for your daybook story tomorrow. Consult this before you hand your piece in!

1) What is the news?

2) Do I understand the news?

3) Have I talked to ten people and quoted five?

4) Do I understand the quotes I’m using?

5) Have I demonstrated a command presence in my story? Am I in control?

6) Have I weeded my garden? Am I a writer or a stenographer?

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Newsroom Diversity Reading

Read this Andrew Alexander Piece for Class

Read this piece as well: Rolling Stone Writer: McChrystal Pals ‘Were Lying’ About Ground Rules

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We all struggle to varying degrees with procrastination. This is a nice piece on the topic by Jim Surowiecki.

“Since open-ended tasks with distant deadlines are much easier to postpone than focussed, short-term projects, dividing projects into smaller, more defined sections helps.”

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Crime and cops

Today’s lesson will point you to some resources and strategies to help you write about crime.

The first part of the lesson will help you look up New York City crime statistics, find future court appearance dates for criminal cases you may be covering (we’ll use the example of Nelson Falu, one of the young men accused in the hate crime incident in the Bronx), perform a ($65, ugh) criminal history record search for New York State (a national criminal history search is not available to journalists), access the nationwide sex offender database, and find the location of an inmate in New York State. We will discuss briefly the challenges you could face if you want to correspond with or interview an inmate; such a decision should never be taken lightly. A good lesson handout providing links to many of these resources (and much more) is provided at Jack Styczynski’s blog here. I also want to iterate that everyone is innocent until proven guilty—and that for both legal and personal reasons you need to be very careful never to overstate what you know when writing about alleged criminal acts.

To understand the work of the police in your CD, one of the best things you can do is apply for the civilian observer ride-along program. It also helps to build a trusting relationship with the community-affairs officer. Attending the precinct community council meetings will also give you a sense of the dynamic between the police and the local community, and the area’s particular challenges. If you want to cover incidents in real-time, it can help to access radio feeds from the New York police and fire departments.

When writing about crime, look for the story behind the headline or the statistic. Some of the best journalism I’ve read in recent years have been crime stories, though not of the A&E “true crime” variety. Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven is in one sense the story of a brutal murder carried out in God’s name; in a larger sense, the book is a skeptical inquiry into religious faith. Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness includes a section on a man who receives a life sentence for a marijuana-dealing conviction as a consequence of “three-strikes-you’re-out” laws. Sheri Fink’s Pulitzer-Prize winning story on life-and-death decisions at a New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina uncovers evidence of euthanasia by doctors working in unspeakably difficult circumstances—and asks useful questions about what the responsibilities of doctors should be when confronted with similar disasters. In each of these three cases, the author goes deeper than what was publicly reported, and he or she uses a particular story to illuminate broader issues of justice.

I will e-mail comments on your CD beat memos to you by tomorrow, October 13th.

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Sharpening the ax

As a journalist, you face the challenge both of collecting information and keeping that information organized. Today’s lesson will touch briefly on both issues. The first part is going to focus on how to make better use out of Google—including site-specific searches, Google BooksGoogle Voice, Google blog search, Google Alerts, and Google Reader. I will also mention the helpful Google Chrome extensions iReader, StayFocused and Web2PDFConverter.

The second part of the lesson is intended to make you think about how to effectively organize your research. Lincoln is credited with saying that if he were given six hours to cut down a tree, he’d spend the first four sharpening the ax. It’s a helpful idea to keep in mind when configuring one of the primary tools of your craft—your computer. If you spend some quality time now getting your technological life in meticulous order, it’s going to make your writing and research process so much easier.

I’m going to show you how I organize myself digitally as a writer and researcher. I don’t expect what works for me necessarily to be the right fit for everybody. Hopefully, at the least, the lesson will spark ideas about what might work best for you. The applications to be discussed briefly today are ScrivenerOmniFocus, and MobileMe.

If there is one simple lesson to take away from today, it is to keep your virtual desktop clean! As a journalist, it is not helpful to have too much floating in the RAM of your mind. A well-organized digital life is going to save you from needless anxiety. Particularly if your desktop looks like this, it’s time for some friendly intervention.

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Some inspiration

The New York Times series “One in 8 million” won an Emmy this week for best new approaches to documentary. I think the series is a beautiful affirmation of the idea that everyone has a story, and it’s a celebration of the city. It’s well worth browsing through if you have some time.

A helpful interview with some of the key players in the creation of the series is here. “It’s an ode to the city,” says the producer Sarah Kramer. “It’s a very small ode done by people who love it and live here. It was an attempt to build a bit of community and make a rather vast place seems a bit smaller and more human. And more intimate.”

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Mashable has an interesting piece about 42 changes to the AP Stylebook.

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