Underestimated

FACT CHECK: Rep. Vicky Hartzler underestimated the lack of high-speed internet in Missouri

Working on fact checks can feel in some ways very different from my other reporting, though ostensibly the methods and concepts are the same. I guess the main dynamic difference I feel is that when I work the GA shift or my beat, those stories are here in Columbia, and much of these fact checks are national. I’m speaking to people in Washington, I’m emailing experts. It feels less grounded or connected. Though the work is very similar, and the finished product is as well.

What’s disconcerting about these types of stories, is working with politicians (or their aides). On this story, while I’m not 100 percent certain of this, I believe Hartzler’s team changed her figures on the original blog post after I contacted them. But not just that, they changed them to the wrong figures — when they had been right in the first place.

Asked for a source for her claim, her team sent me an outdated report, which came from the same website where a far newer and more dire report was also present. It was my first hands-on experience of being astounded by the carelessness of an elected official.

Curators

MU Health Care revenue up $58M, report to Curators shows

As someone still new to journalism, I feel like I’m continually working to understand the dynamics of being in a room as a reporter. What is my authority? What is my obligation? What is appropriate? What is my relationship to these people? Especially these very experienced people?

Sitting in on a meeting of the Board of Curators was one of the first situations that I felt very aware of my status as a reporter — and also one as student-reporter, as surely everyone in the room knew the Missourian was a student-run paper. I didn’t ever feel uncomfortable, but I felt very aware of myself, and my presence. I’m not exactly sure why, or what will change in the future, but it was an interesting experience.

It was also fascinating to witness the congratulatory nature of a governing board. Everything in the room felt spun to some extent — there was no bad news, every misstep, was still a step, and one in the right direction at that.

All of this, though, I’m not sure I realized in the moment. Which I think speaks back to the dynamic in the room. I was, to some extent, intimidated, and so I didn’t ask any good questions after the meeting. I likely wrote the story they were hoping would be written — not that I even know there was another story to be written, since I didn’t do all the work I likely could have, in retrospect.

Wrongful death

Judge approves settlement in wrongful death lawsuit of Columbia firefighter

The thing I am still learning to do, is write on a tight deadline. Not that this piece was tight, or demanded on deadline, but it was a piece we decided to cover and I knocked out in about an hour or so.

It was also a story where I didn’t do much actual reporting, where I relied upon some court documents and then on previous Missourian reporting. Which, I struggled with at times, in part because we delivered contradictory information in different stories over the years. It wasn’t exactly hard to find the correct facts, but it was interesting to see how some minor things can get twisted or lost as stories evolve and different writers pick them up.

Lastly, I’m still finding my way around CaseNet, which is a great resource, but jargonistic.

Tax credits

Proposed health care plan to replace the ACA would cut tax credits for many Missourians

 More of an explainer than anything else I’ve done, this story really came from the fact that I kept hearing about tax credits, but I, in trying to write about them as a reporter, didn’t even really understand what they were. So, this was my chance to dig into the minutia of it all. The lens for it, though, was the new health care proposal and how radically it would change the current set up (to favor the young and the rich).
The story was also really my first attempt to make numbers clear. Tax credits are, obviously, based around a lot of numbers. So to give examples and help people understand what everything actually means, I had to understand the numbers and then find a clear, concise way to relate them. I don’t think I succeed much at first, but I think I got to a point where it wasn’t overwhelming, and it was pretty clear. I have a tendency to get lost in paragraphs that are packed with numbers, my eyes start erratically jumping around, and just about all the information is foregone. Eventually, I just skip to the next paragraph looking for the summary. But, I know that I have an obligation to relate the numbers, to be as transparent and thorough as possible, and that means including and explaining the numbers.
Also, generally speaking, this was the first time I understood that I was enjoying writing about health care and I was starting to get to a place where I could make sense of what other stories were saying—and when I realized just how confused so many other people probably are when they approach the painfully erudite complexities of our health care system.

‘Whose Streets?’

‘Whose Streets?’ is a ‘correction of the narrative’ about Ferguson

This assignment came sort of late and round about. True/False was in full swing and, essentially, we were looking for a chance to take a deeper look at a film — especially with Vox covering reviews for the films and a handful of other reporters tackling the festivities.

For me, this assignment was much more in my wheelhouse. I have been reviewing movies and writing about movies and movie culture for a few years now, so I felt confident that I could do what I needed to do, and that I knew the language to articulate the story — all things that I worry about on a regular basis regarding other stories. Being a writer before a reporter, I’m always concerned that I know the words (the language, the diction, the jargon, the vernacular) to tap into the subject at hand and say what I want to say, and movies is one subject where I feel comfortable doing that.

Generally, I think it paid off. It was one scenario where I felt comfortable writing the story in my head as it played out. I knew most of what I would say about the movie before even getting a chance to talk with the directors (while open to letting their comments and interpretation guide my structure). It was new, though, to not really have any time to plan questions, to be put on the spot and need to come up with thoughtful, pointed questions. I jotted down a few notes during the movie, but I’m used to having more time to think questions over and perfect them, so working on the fly in that respect was fun and eye-opening.

Chatting with the directors was also a treat. They were open and candid in a way that many subjects aren’t. They also had a thoughtful digression about the term “subject” and how the media views those who they come to interview and watch and abandon — the disconnect created by such an exacting medical term: subjects. It was possibly my favorite moment from our discussion, but not one I could really see fitting into the story I put together.

Playing catch-up

Part of Ninth Street closed for True/False festivities

I think my favorite part of writing this little story was simply getting a little tangled up in some True/False chaos (delightful chaos, to be sure). Certainly it’s an important little piece, but felt like the sort of thing I would skim if I came upon it. I was able to get myself into simply because of the exciting situation surrounding it: it was my first True/False and it was fun to get the inside scoop — as small as said scoop was.

‘By The Book’

Social media posts started relationships that ended in terrorist suspect’s indictment

When I first considered the thought of being a journalist, it was always this sort of adversarial ideal: checking the power of those who hold it. It’s the sort of journalism that I’ve always admired. So, getting a chance to dive into a story like this one, about a local man who was arrested and is accused of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization by undercover FBI agents who provided him with ideas and funding, was exciting (for both selfish and not selfish reasons).

Everything else was less exciting and more exacting though. And rightfully so. Wading through the complaint was sort of like learning a new language for me: The first few pages made little sense, but as I read more and more I was able to learn to read it. Which helped me to understand the importance of doing just this: the important tasks that the average individual doesn’t have time to do, to help synthesize important information and hold accountable law enforcement agencies.

This time, of course, the law stands on the side of the FBI (not that the law is infallible), but I’m happy to have dug to that point. An article from The Intercept, in conjunction with our own reporting, gave me the inclination to look into what happened and I think in doing so — in talking to an expert and reading the complaint myself — I was able to find a middle ground that neither previous piece had: that while seemingly egregious on the surface, it was “by the book” — for better or worse.