Thursday, September 20, 2012

Berens talks ‘quantifying’ in investigative reporting

~Written by Mark Mize

Pulitzer Prize-winning Seattle Times investigative reporter Michael Berens’s session focused on how using the right process and repositories of information can be the key to successful watchdog journalism.

“The most powerful way to make stories is to find these repositories and find a way to quantify them,” Berens said.

Berens said that most of his skills were honed in his first four or five years at The Columbus Dispatch on the police beat.

He said that when deciding on which watchdog stories to pursue, journalists must look at which ones will yield the best results.

“There are lots of examples of really well-done stories, but they’re boring, or they’re  not relevant, or you see it wasn’t their story,” Berens said.

Pulitzer winning reporter Michael Berens of the Seattle Times talks about strategies and opportunities to find and report better stories from public records.
~Photo by Matt Masters 
Creating checklists may seem like a basic task. However, Berens says they can help journalists understand the elements that make for great stories if there is the tangible element of quantification.

“When you look at the award-winning stories out there, for want of a better description, and compare it to stories that don’t quite meet that bar; one of the things you’ll notice is the quantification,” Berens said.

He went on to list tools and repositories that will help quantify information for enterprise stories.
The Fatality Analysis Reporting database is available free from the federal government, and keeps records on every fatal car crash in America, such as the weight of the car, nature of the crash, and information about those injured in the crash.

“If you develop this tool in the newsroom, and a lot of newsrooms keep this updated annually, so they can use it on a flash, you can start doing watchdog stories right from a breaking news event,” Berens said.

Payroll data can be also be useful to jump start stories. Berens said payroll databases can not only create interesting stories by searching criteria, such as which city employees are the highest paid, but may also be a good way to find valuable sources.

“When I’m doing a story on any kind of city or state agency, I get the payroll database, and I look for everyone who has retired during the last six months and give them a call. They’ve just left and now they’re free to talk, and boy, they will talk,” said Berens.

Berens said in-patient hospital discharge database is the most valuable database that he has ever come across.

“It’s a roster of every patient who’s admitted to every hospital in your state. It’s a list of whether they were on Medicaid or insurance, did they come through the emergency room, did they come in through the prison, did they come in through the nursing home, what was their diagnosis code,” said Berens.

It also includes other information, including some patient demographics, what they were treated for and how much it costs, which can lead to various kinds of medical-related stories.

“It’s about the people. What we do isn’t about numbers; it isn’t about databases. It’s about telling the stories of the people,” said Berens. 

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