Project Proposal: A Go or a No-Go
Before the class reads about Nigel Jaquiss" "30-Year Secret" investigation, start a discussion to help students learn how to analyze tips. Without providing the backstory or any other information about this topic, distribute copies of the four-page conservatorship record (Appendix B) from the circuit court of the adjoining Washington County in Oregon. Instruct them to assume that the document simply came in the mail to their newsroom at a small weekly newspaper with no return address and that it was directed to their city editor. Explain that they are all busy with long to-do lists of story ideas and they do not have much time to follow leads not likely to produce a story. To teach them to listen to their instincts, ask students to study the record for 10 minutes and turn it over face down.
1. Go around the classroom and asked each student to explain the general purpose of the documents in the record and what facts (or missing facts) stood out in their minds, if any.
2. Instruct the class to examine the record more closely and identify facts (or missing facts) and clues that: (a) arouse curiosity; and (b) provide leads they can use to further investigate (examples: plaintiff"s name, lawyer"s names, dates on the document)
3. Tell the class they have a list of 10 other unrelated items on their calendar that day and ask them to discuss where on that priority list they would place this record. Ask each student to explain his or her decision.
4. Using an overhead projector, display one page of the record, point to various facts, and discuss significance and possible course of reporting action (i.e., file a records request or go to the courthouse in Washington County to examine the file).
5. Reveal the backstory about the rumor of Goldschmidt"s sexual acts with Susan. Discuss to what extent the facts previously discussed take on new meaning and whether it reveals additional missing facts.
6. Write a 250-word story memo that provides a one-sentence story idea, identifies what facts in the document give that idea some plausibility and details specific actions that could be accomplished in one day to check out the idea.
7. Tell the class members they are the editors of the weekly newspaper, and a reporter walked up to the city desk to talk about this rumor and court record that he or she found. Ask one student at a time to stand up and read his or her story memo to the classroom full of "editors." Begin calling on each "editor" to engage in a story discussion with the "reporter." After five minutes, ask the "editor" to give the reporter a "go or no-go" order to spend two more days checking out the story.
Before the class reads the section of Chapter 2 on Jaquiss" interview with Susan, set up the scenario that Jaquiss confronted as he and Zusman planned the interview. Then ask the class to strategize the interview. The following are some suggested discussion issues.
1. How should you ask for the interview? Who should do the interview? Should one or two reporters do the interview?
2. Would you use a tape recorder?
3. What will be the tone of your questioning if she denies Goldschmidt abused her?
4. What are some ways to respond if: (a) she denies anything happened; (b) she reveals everything; (c) she appears willing to open up, but will only respond to specific questions asking for specific facts?
5. How are you going to start the interview?
6. How are you going to use the documents?
7. Will you and your partner divide responsibilities? If so, how will you do that?
Finding and Using Public Records
1. Ask the class to read Jaquiss" story at Pulitzer.org and identify information that came from public records. As the students identify them, list each fact on the board. Then discuss the strength and value of that evidence and how that information could be used as a lever to help pry information from reluctant sources. Discuss how these records may have provided Jaquiss with leads and human sources.
2. At one point in the investigation, Editor Mark Zusman said Jaquiss relies heavily on public records, because "he believes public records don"t lie." Discuss the validity of that belief. In what ways can "the record" be wrong?
3. Distribute the chapter section that explains Jaquiss" search of public records. Use a brief discussion of the excerpt as a lead-in to a minilecture on how the criminal and civil court systems work and the records they produce.
4. Assign each student a local elected official and instruct him or her to conduct a records search on the individual and write a records report. (Suggestion: Require them to go to the physical location of the records to acquire hard copies. Use this part of the assignment to emphasize the importance of getting out of the office, away from the computer and into the faces of people on the beat.)
The Reporting Process
In this story, Jaquiss said he feared the competition would get the story before him. He would not talk to colleagues about his work. He and Zusman also did not want to talk to people close to Goldschmidt until Jaquiss had interviewed the "friendlies," who were former friends of Susan"s and had searched all the records.
Discuss the pros and cons of working "under the radar."