Analyzing the Story Assignment
Begin class by announcing that you are the city editor of the local newspaper in your town and that you had dinner last night with some friends who have a 25-year-old mentally ill son who is living at an adult care home for the mentally ill. Using an overhead projector, display an assignment memo that contains these details:
1. Although the first step would be to interview your friends, discuss how students could proceed afterward. This is a thinking exercise rather than a how-to recipe. The reporting shortcut in an investigation involving the mentally ill is to seek the advice of an advocate to help identify records, documents and sources. But your goal in the following discussion prompts is to teach your students how to independently analyze reporting situations to identify investigative avenues and possible sources of records when shortcuts are unavailable or they need to avoid becoming dependent on sources with special interests and narrow perspectives. Help them see how they can methodically think about the assignment and figure out where they might find public records and identify other sources who might be willing to talk about the home.
2. List ways that the problems listed by the family could have reached others.
3. Among the problems detailed by the family, which ones would have prompted action by one or more government authorities?
4. What possible sources of information could a reporter discover in the community where the home is located?
5. Other than provide details about their son"s case, in what other ways could the family provide leads and ideas for pursuing a broader investigation into the adult home?
Scouting for a Paper Trail
Although the most productive paper trail appears when the investigation gets under way, reporters can peruse many standard records in search of leads and sources for almost any story. The following prompts will help students think analytically about the earlier adult home scenario and identify records.
1. Because these homes are private businesses, and they serve a population that is vulnerable or completely helpless, what role and responsibilities would city, county or state governments have?
2. What are typical ways governments carry out their responsibilities to protect the public welfare?
3. If an adult home is a corporation, what documents must it file with state government that would yield information about the business?
4. If the owners of the home are accused of breaking a law or civil regulation or become involved in a dispute with a resident or the resident"s loved ones, where are such problems often resolved?
5. What kind of volunteer groups form when a group of vulnerable people such as the mentally ill becomes sizeable and their problems become a community concern?
6. What legislative committees in the state legislature would deal with proposals for new laws to solve the problems that the mentally ill have?
Holding People Accountable
In the preceding scenario, assume you found a recent official inspection report written by inspectors for your state"s Department of Health and the report lists dozens of serious health code violations. You have interviewed the owner of the home. He says that they are working on making the corrections, that most of them have already been completed and that they will be ready for a reinspection by the due date in the inspector"s report. Before you write a story about that report and the owner"s answer, what additional reporting could you do?
Preparing a Pitch Memo
As a homework assignment, instruct the class to go online and find the March 18 story by Levy and Sarah Kershaw concerning the questionable prostate surgeries that were performed on 24 men at Leben Home for Adults and their April 18 follow-up story.
Instruct the class to analyze the two stories, identify a potential investigative project and write a pitch memo of at least 350 words explaining their idea. The memo must identify possible sources—human and paper—they could use to begin their investigation and thoughts on what steps they would take in a preliminary investigation to determine whether the project has a reasonable chance of producing a story.