Finding Project Ideas
The "broken homes" of New York had been broken for decades, yet the Times had virtually ignored them.
1. What does that failure say about nature of news, the origin of important project ideas and the mission of journalism?
2. Does the failure to explore the subject earlier suggest changes in the way beat reporting should be carried out?
Informed Consent and Ethics
In one section, Levy delves into how adult home and health care providers were exploiting residents" diminished mental abilities to gain consent for questionable medical procedures. Although Levy described them as open to suggestion and said one was "out of it," he persuaded about a dozen to give written authorization to examine their psychiatric and medical billing records.
1. Although state government eventually accepted the authorizations after giving him "a bit of a hard time," discuss the ethics of Levy"s actions.
2. Did his benevolent purposes justify his actions?
3. Although the law did not prohibit his actions, does the fact that he was writing a story that raised questions about exploiting the mentally ill impose a special ethical burden to avoid any actions that would give critics grounds for accusing him of taking advantage of vulnerable people?
4. Does his explanation satisfactorily explain his decision?
Managing Your Material
1. Levy was a methodical, well-organized reporter. After reviewing some of his methods, discuss other ways to organize the material to keep track of your records. In this discussion, lead the reporters to identify generic subject categories that are usually essential for every investigation such as a sources file, official documents file, project plans, tips, "what-I-know-now" summaries, to-do lists, interview files and story drafts. Discuss subject categories that specifically fit the "Broken Homes" investigation.
2. As the investigation proceeds, the material becomes voluminous to the point that dates, patterns and factual gaps are difficult to discern. Ask the class to discuss ways to maintain command of the material (i.e., start chronologies for individual case studies or for the entire investigation or both, etc.).
3. Discuss the importance of reviewing all of your notes"not just the ones that you may have highlighted as significant"at least once a week.
Following the Paper Trail
1. When Levy began the "Broken Homes" investigation, he did not know anything about the subject, which meant he did not know what records were kept and were available. Yet he built an unassailable, documented case. As a homework or classroom exercise, ask the class to go to www.pulitzer.org and read at least one of the stories in the series and identify the types of records Levy used. Discuss how he might have discovered that the records existed.
2. Note that Levy discovered that a 1994 law required adult homes for the mentally ill to report all deaths at their facilities to the state. Although that discovery did not produce any documents for his investigation because the homes had failed to comply with law, ask the class to discuss what Levy"s discovery teaches us about identifying useable records and documents in any project.
3. Before an investigative reporter can determine whether the adult home system or any system or government agency is working correctly and obeying the laws, what basic information must the reporter first obtain?
4. The Social Security Administration records were crucial to the project, especially because it was the only source for tracking down the deaths of people who resided in adult homes. Review how Levy came up with a creative way to get information he needed. Discuss how he was able to figure that out. The answer is a variation of the earlier prompt. Levy knew what type of information the SSA gathered even though a lot of it was considered confidential. But by learning that the SSA"s records had the specific addresses of the dead even though it would not release them, that knowledge helped Levy to figure out how to get that information despite the confidentiality rules.
To give a story vibrancy and color, reporters have to get out in the field where the events that they are investigating occurred. Ask the class to go through the story and identify examples of fieldwork. Interestingly, much of the information that came from inspection reports was very graphic and powerful. Although examining inspection reports is desk work rather than fieldwork, the reports are the products of fieldwork and thus contain a color that can give story energy.
Focusing on the Project
Discuss the emotional tug-of-war Levy experienced when terrorists struck in New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, in the middle of his project.
Levy advised students who hope to become journalists not to go to journalism schools. Instead, he urged them to study whatever interests them and join the college newspaper. Discuss how an education in journalism school fits the demands of the work-a-day reporters and editors and how a liberal arts education also prepares students for a journalism career.