IRE conference provides valuable tools and tips

Mid-Career grant recipient 2021

By Rachel Spacek

For years I watched my colleagues at other newspapers attend the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference. They came back with data experience, source building ideas and phone numbers from dozens of fellow reporters across the country. I was always either new at my newspaper or new in journalism and never had the chance to figure out how reporters got to take a week off work and fly to these conferences.

Thankfully, last year the Idaho Press Club’s Don Watkins Mid-Career Scholarship paid for me to attend the 2021 virtual IRE conference. The first day of the conference was June 14, less than a month after starting my new job at the Idaho Statesman, covering government. I had covered county government at the Idaho Press, but never city government. So I was happy for the chance to learn skills for my new position.

Here are some main things I learned from IRE:

Public Records during COVID-19: I attended three Freedom of Information Act sessions. Regardless of beat, we have all been stonewalled in the last two years with our records requests from agencies that claimed our request violated HIPAA. I learned that agencies often claim HIPPA in public record denials, but it usually doesn’t shield public records from view. Miranda Spivack, an independent journalist, hosted the one FOIA session, and said that if HIPPA is claimed, reporters should try asking for documents with specific names and identifying information redacted. Such as the number of COVID-19 cases and names of long term care facilities, without the names of the people with the illness.

Build relationships with county and city clerks: Spivack also suggested building relationships with the people who handle the records requests in a city, school district, county or wherever you are requesting. This can help you understand what is available, how long it takes and the clerk may give special care with handling your request or may give you a call about a request.

Quick hit watchdog stories: Another session I attended was “Watchdog stories on the local government beat.” This session was useful because it focused on mostly quick-hit and shorter watchdog stories. It was great hearing from Norberto Santana, the editor and publisher of Voice of OC. He talked about the importance of these quick hit, investigative stories because not every record or every tip needs a three part series. Sometimes it starts with just a 20-inch story and you can follow up as the issue plays out.

Who to talk to and where to look: As a daily news reporter, watchdog journalism can often seem daunting. Santana suggested taking sources out to coffee, attending land use hearings, and requesting records of audits, lawsuits and grant spending. These simple, weekly or daily records requests can often yield great, short watchdog stories.

Public complaint data: Santana suggested requesting public complaint data. Public complaint data can help track what people are asking their city or county for and if the agency is meeting those needs. Find out which city department tracks complaints and request its records. For example, the Washington Post reported on the rising rat complaints in Washington D.C. and tracked the neighborhoods with the highest number of complaints. In another example the Houston Chronicle found the city had the highest complaints of illegal dumping and missed trash pickups in poor and middle income neighborhoods.

Long-term watchdog stories: For long-term watchdog stories, Santana and the other reporters on the panel recommended talking to more people than you think you need, knocking on doors and scheduling more than one interview. He said it is important to ask your sources for the documents they have because they may have records you can’t get through a public records request.

Voting: One of the last sessions I attended was called “Using data and voters’ voices to show who would be affected by changes in voter access.” With much discussion about voting and election integrity in this state, I thought this was an important one to watch. The reporters on the panel suggested many resources to find election and voter impact stories. One resource collected polling place data that can help reporters determine how a change or movement of a polling place affects voters and turnout. The resource is: https://publicintegrity.org/politics/elections/ballotboxbarriers/data-release-sheds-light-on-past-polling-place-changes/

Suggestions on election stories: The panel said that any small deterrent can impact a voter, and that is important to keep in mind when writing stories about voting. They suggested having a political scientist on your contact list. They suggested talking to election administrators to understand how data is collected.

I have been really proud of the work I have done at the Idaho Statesman, and I know a lot has to do with the support I have here, but I also gained confidence from the IRE conference.

I am thankful to the Idaho Press Club and Don Watkins and family and friends for making this scholarship available to Idaho reporters. Early and mid-career journalists are usually stuck on the grind of daily reporting. A scholarship like this allows us to slow down and hear from experts and gain knowledge and confidence to better serve our readers.

Deadline extended
Mid-career grant applications are now being accepted until March 15

Have a great idea for a story and no funds to get it to print or on the air? Need money for professional training? Apply for the Idaho Press Club’s Don Watkins Mid-Career Scholarship.

The Mid-Career Scholarship awards $500 for any Idaho Press Club member to use for any training or project that will improve the working press in Idaho. The only catch: You must share what you learn with Press Club members through a discussion at a conference or an article in an upcoming edition of the Communicator. Any Press Club member is eligible for this scholarship.

To apply, send your resume and a proposal for how you would spend the money to us via e-mail to email@idahopressclub.org. Applications are due by March 15. The winner will be announced as part of the Press Club’s annual awards program in April.