The IRE website will be unavailable while we complete routine maintenance on Friday, November 19 from 8-10 am CT.
IRE favicon

A weekend of Watchdog Workshops

IRE traveled to Los Angeles, Tucson and Laramie last weekend for a trio of Watchdog Workshops. Attendees shared their tips and ideas on Twitter.

Our Los Angeles workshop at USC featured IRE trainer Jaimi Dowdell, independent journalist Ronald Campbell, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter/assistant editor Ellen Gabler, NBC Bay Area reporter Jenna Suskoand Los Angeles Times legal counsel Jeff Glasser.

— Jillian Beck (@Jillian_Beck) April 11, 2014

— Jaimi Dowdell (@JaimiDowdell) April 11, 2014

— Michael J. Arvizu (@thedjmichaelj) April 11, 2014

— Jillian Beck (@Jillian_Beck) April 11, 2014

— Julie Walmsley 吴志伦 (@JWalmsleyJourno) April 11, 2014

— Mike Reicher (@mreicher) April 11, 2014

— Jaimi Dowdell (@JaimiDowdell) April 11, 2014

— Jillian Beck (@Jillian_Beck) April 11, 2014

— George Stanley (@geostanley) April 11, 2014

— Julie Walmsley 吴志伦 (@JWalmsleyJourno) April 12, 2014

In Tucson we stopped at the University of Arizona School of Journalism. Attendees heard from several speakers including Megan Luther, IRE training director; David Cuillier, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists; and Celeste Gonzalez de Bustamante, an associate professor with extensive experience covering the U.S./Mexico border.

— Marisa Mendelson (@MarisaMendelson) April 12, 2014

— Mariana Dale (@mariana_dale) April 12, 2014

— Hannah Gaber (@HannahSGS) April 12, 2014

— Mariana Dale (@mariana_dale) April 12, 2014

— Celeste Bustamante (@celestegdb) April 14, 2014

— Hannah Gaber (@HannahSGS) April 12, 2014

— Yoohyun Jung (@yoohyun_jung) April 13, 2014

— Mariana Dale (@mariana_dale) April 13, 2014

— Johanna Willett (@JohannaWillett) April 13, 2014

— Hannah Gaber (@HannahSGS) April 12, 2014

— Celeste Bustamante (@celestegdb) April 14, 2014

IRE last week brought its popular Watchdog Workshop series to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Nearly 250 people attended the event, which included two extra tracks focused on financial and data journalism.

The financial sessions focused on tools to investigate stocks and commodities, hedge funds and more, with speakers from Bloomberg, Reuters, the Times and the Journal. The data track included information on visualization, cybersecurity, storytelling and more, with additional speakers from organizations including ESPN, WNYC and more.

Throughout the two-day event, attendees shared quotes, tips and notes on Twitter using #watchdogworkshop.

Walt Bogdanich, an assistant editor for investigations at The New York Times, discussed the art of the investigative interview.

Seeing Walt Bogdanich speak is to me what seeing Kanye in concert is to some people. #journalism #nerdstatus @IRE_NICAR

— Michael Sisak (@cvmikesisak) January 24, 2014

 

Best @IRE_NICAR #watchdogworkshop today: Walt Bogdanich from the @nytimes. Great tips on investigative interviews at @cunyjschool

— Nelson Oliveira (@olivnelson) January 24, 2014

 

"As long as you've got somebody on the line, don't let them go." esp. if they want to talk to their lawyer first Walt Bogdanich @IRE_NICAR

— Amber Phillips (@phillipsamberj) January 24, 2014

David Barstow, a senior writer for The New York Times and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, talked about the investigative reporter’s mindset.

David Barstow, NYT: "Marinate yourself in the material." Read all the documents so you master topic you're investigating #watchdogworkshop

— Amy Friedenberger (@AJFriedenberger) January 24, 2014

 

Barstow: Give yourself a week to fact check big investigative story. "You want to get to the point where you can sleep." #watchdogworkshop

— Amy Friedenberger (@AJFriedenberger) January 24, 2014

 

Bloomberg News’ Bob Ivry was one of three panelists to discuss the Wall Street beat.

 

"FOIA w/o attitude is just a bunch of papers. Attitude w/o FOIA is a rant." Bob Ivry @IRE_NICAR workshop. True even beyond FOIA, of course.

— @itsjina (@itsjina) January 24, 2014

 

.@bobivry on finding stories in graphs: "If I can't ski it, it's a story" #watchdogworkshop

— Stan Alcorn (@stan_alcorn) January 24, 2014

 

Want even more? Lam Thuy Vo and Joanna Kao, of Al Jazeera America, created a public Google Doc to share their detailed notes from the sessions.

 

Notes from the @IRE_NICAR Watchdog Workshops — great data resources and behind-the-scenes info on investigations: http://t.co/KKOQd8o1re

— Lam Thuy Vo (@lamthuyvo) January 24, 2014

 

We’re in the process of uploading workshop tipsheets, presentations and audio files. Speakers can send handouts to tipsheets@ire.org

Last week IRE's Jaimi Dowdell and Liz Lucas led a four-day boot camp in data analysis at Temple University's Center for Public Interest Journalism.

The Center for Public Interest Journalism sponsored the training, lowering the cost from $800 to $200. Participants learned to clean and analyze data using Microsoft Excel and Structured Query Language with Microsoft Access. They also learned how to find data, craft records requests and negotiate for electronic information.

Participants included journalists from the following organizations:

Read more at the CPIJ blog. 

By Mugambi Mutegi

Editor's note: in July, IRE hosted the 2013 class of Alfred Friendly Fellows for training in training in computer-assisted and investigative reporting, covering Excel spreadsheets and more. One of the fellows, Mugambi Mutegi, wrote about his experience using Excel for the Alfred Friendly Press Partners, republished below.

In the short time I have been alive, I had not until recently come across anybody who, upon using MS Excel for the first time, instantly fell in love with the program.

I’m sure such people exist, but I can hazard that they do not exceed six – worldwide.

For me, the most appealing function about Excel was the ‘X’ button at the right hand corner of an open window.

Just point your mouse at the button, click and, voila, the universe regains some normalcy.

No formulas required.

I managed to steer clear of Excel and its evil cells and columns for a long time, until I was employed at Business Daily.

There was no escape this time, I thought. I just had to get used to it — to process data and plot graphs, among other uses. —

I, sadly and — retrospectively – regrettably, had never taken time to learn any new stuff over and above what was required to (barely) survive.

PS: I happen to love interesting things in life so spare me that look.

Therefore, when I skimmed through the AFPP mid-term seminar program, I was far from excited to find the word ‘’spreadsheets’’ listed therein.

I was finally getting to meet two of the six people who love Excel.

We flew to Columbia, Mo., and when the appointed day and hour arrived, Mark Horvit introduced himself and his colleague, Jaimi Dowdell.

“Two out of six? In the same room? At the same time?”  That was me mentally wrestling with the concept of probabilities.

Mark is the executive director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, where Jaimi has been a training director since 2008.

The two laid out a tag-team training outline for us, and when they were done Jaimi took the floor.

She taught us about fusion tables, using social network analysis to find connections and how to find and download data on the Internet.

As I stated earlier I am for cool stuff, and whatever Jaimi was teaching was indeed 50 shades of cool.

Like a thirsty dog, I lapped it all up. Inwardly, I dreaded the moment when the lesson would be abruptly ended by the mention of “spreadsheets”!

Jaimi seemed just as passionate about what she was teaching as she was lively.

Not that the latter mattered to me, I was processing a ton of new stuff every time she spoke. Dozing off was not an option.

When Mark came on, I was relieved that he matched (if not surpassed) Jaimi’s energy. Remember, at this point, I was already biased against one of his topics and the least he could do was to bore me in the most energetic way possible.

Boy, was I in for a shock!

Allow me to digress in order to infuse a little bit of context at this point.

As it so happens, I am the Business Daily reporter who, more often than not, is assigned to cover the release of secondary and primary school national examinations.

This means that twice a year, I have to sift through hundreds of numbers and names, trying to sniff out a story other than what the Education Minister presents.

I will not go into the details of how I accomplished this in years past, but let’s just say, at the end of those days, I was a spent soul in desperate need of a stiff drink.

This is not the only instance where I have to deal with a lot of data.

Let Mark re-enter the stage.

Here he was effortlessly exhibiting how to use Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR).

In no time, I was grouping and crunching random data and offering suggestions on stories that could be pursued.

I felt happy that I had learned something invaluable, but I also ended up feeling like a refined dummy.

I have always prided myself on being a technologically savvy individual.

Therefore, I felt terrible that I had allowed my prejudices toward Excel to prevent me from exploring its versatility.

I could not help but wonder how much more relaxed the days I handled national examination results would have been had I taken the time to study Excel just a bit more.

I learned a lot during the midterm seminar, but personally, Excel and the neat tricks and tools such as using the scraper and getting data from “locked” documents stood out for me.

A friend just read this blog and told me, “I am glad you have seen the light. Excel is the very fiber that runs this world.”

I now know of four Excel lovers – including myself, a new recruit.

Where are the other two?

In March, LaCrosse Tribune reporter Chris Hubbuch attended an IRE training event in Wisconsin, where introductions to Excel and data-driven journalism were on the agenda. Since then, he’s produced data-driven stories on foreclosures, property values, crime and waste. He even revelaed that the LaCrosse mayor's pet license was out of date. Using federal data, the LaCrosse Tribune turned a story on deadline showing disparities in hospital charges, complete with an interactive data visualization. Here’s a look at some of the LaCrosse Tribune stories that IRE training helped make possible:

Photo courtesy of the Incident Information System.

Editor's Note: As the Yarnell Hill Fire continues to blaze, mourning begins for the lives of 19 firefighters lost in the battle. Reporters are beginning to dig into why this disaster happened. Nate Carlisle, justice editor at The Salt Lake Tribune, has covered wildfires since 2005 and completed a weeklong wildland firefighter certification course. He offers some advice and suggests questions for those wanting to investigate this and other fire tragedies.

Standard Firefighting Orders, courtesy National Wildfire Coordinating Group Incident Response Pocket Guide, PMS 461, NFES 1077, January 2010. PDF found here: http://bit.ly/MoPDvR

Live wildfire map Powered by Esri

IRE will be offering a computer-assisted reporting boot camp at Temple University in Philadelphia, Penn., August 19-22. During these four days attendees will be introduced to analyzing data for stories with spreadsheets and database managers. In addition, they'll learn ways to find data, craft open records requests and negotiate for electronic information.

Because of the generosity from the Center for Public Interest Journalism we're able to offer a reduced flat rate of $200 to attend this hands-on training. Register today as seats are limited.

Experienced IRE trainers will teach you how to summarize data using Microsoft Excel and query information using Structured Query Language in Microsoft Access.

More information including hotels and a sample schedule will be posted soon. See the Boot Camps page for insturctions on how to register and information on other workshops and boot camps coming near you. For questions please contact jaimi@ire.org.

Navajo boys plow a corn field on the Navajo Reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico, date unknown. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.

The deadline has been extended to April 14 for an all-expenses paid reporting workshop on covering agribusiness from The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and Investigative Reporters and Editors, held May 30 to June 2 in Champaign, Ill. Applications must be received by midnight Central Time. 

The workshop will bring together educators, reporters and editors from small-to-midsize newsrooms to hear and learn how to take an in-depth look at the issues surrounding agribusiness. 

Why investigate agribusiness? Corporate agribusiness is growing each year. Agribusiness produces food, feed and fuel. Large firms employ tens of thousands of people and their sales net billions of dollars.

The issues involved in are many and diverse, including federal subsidies and crop insurance, farm worker conditions and immigration, antibiotics and food safety, pesticides and genetically-modified seed patents, to name a few.

Last week on the blog, we took a look at some of the investigations that have been done into agribusiness. Here's that list: 

Anonymous tipsters often prompt Monsanto farm investigations | St. Louis Beacon, 2013

William Freivogel of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting reports on Monsanto’s enforcement of its seed patents, and how the company has set up an anonymous tip line to find farmers who are infringing on its patents.

Beef’s Raw Edges |The Kansas City Star, 2012
Veteran reporter Mike McGraw spent months on this story, uncovering that “The industry increasingly relies on a mechanical tenderization process, increasing E. coli risks. Meanwhile, doctors and USDA say antibiotic overuse is leading to resistant bacteria in humans. And with consumption down, beef is fighting back with efforts to influence U.S. dietary guidelines.”

Got a suggestion?
If you have a story we should add to this list, let us know and it'll join our resource center! Email it to web@ire.org.


As Common as Dirt | Food and Environment Reporting Network/American Prospect, 2012
Tracie McMillan examines wage theft -- a practice rampant in agriculture unlike any other industry, and how the farm labor contractor system prevents oversight and robs farm workers of protection: “Farm-labor contractors give American produce growers what companies like China’s Foxconn offer to Apple: a way to outsource a costly and complicated part of the business, often saving money in the process and creating a firewall between the brand and the working conditions under which its products are made.”

What the USDA Doesn't Want You to Know About Antibiotics and Factory Farms | Mother Jones, 2011
Food and agriculture blogger Tom Philpott reports that the USDA scrubbed from its website research on antibiotics in food production and the rise of resistant bacteria, as well as ordered the researcher not to speak to the media. The report stated that “Use and misuse of antimicrobial drugs in food animal production and human medicine is the main factor accelerating antimicrobial resistance,” a fact the industry resists.

Agriculture is nation’s biggest polluter but usually goes unpunished | InvestigateWest, 2012
Robert McClure investigates hole in the Clean Water Act that allows agriculture to continue polluting: Forty years after Congress passed the Clean Water Act, the Lemire case highlights one of the biggest failings of this bedrock environmental law: farms are exempted from federal water-pollution regulation.”

In Sugar Price Supports, Sour Tastes for Consumers | Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, 2012
Amy Green reports that Americans pay $2 billion in increased food prices every year as a result of the inflated price of sugar.  “There has been a lot of tension between environmentalists and sugar growers in South Florida,” she has said of her reporting.  “But we don’t realize the way food policy has affected all Americans.”  

Our Dwindling Food Variety | National Geographic Magazine, 2011
John Tomanio visualizes the thousands of heirloom varieties that have been lost -- 93 percent for the 66 crops included in a comparison of seed varieties sold by commercial U.S. seed houses in 1903 with those in the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory in 1983

Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear | Vanity Fair, 2008
Reporting team Donald Barlett and James Steele investigate Monsanto’s strong-arm tactics against small farmers: “Monsanto already dominates America’s food chain with its genetically modified seeds. Now it has targeted milk production. Just as frightening as the corporation’s tactics–ruthless legal battles against small farmers–is its decades-long history of toxic contamination”

Harvesting Cash | The Washington Post, 2006
Sarah Cohen, Dan Morgan and Gilbert Gaul spent more than a year examining farm subsidies, finding more than $15 billion in “wasteful, unnecessary and redundant spending.”

Fraud on the Farm | NPR, 2005
In a series of radio reports, John Burnett explains how “federal crop insurance was created in the dust bowl days of the 1930s to help farmers survive the ravages of nature. But changes in the program have created a new type of farmer: one who farms only for the insurance money.

Navajo boys plow a corn field on the Navajo Reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico, date unknown. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.

Monday is the last day to register for an all-expenses paid reporting workshop on covering agribusiness from The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and Investigative Reporters and Editors, held May 30 to June 2 in Champaign, Ill. The workshop will bring together educators, reporters and editors from small-to-midsize newsrooms to hear and learn how to take an in-depth look at the issues surrounding agribusiness. 

Why investigate agribusiness? Corporate agribusiness is growing each year. Agribusiness produces food, feed and fuel. Large firms employ tens of thousands of people and their sales net billions of dollars.

The issues involved in are many and diverse, including federal subsidies and crop insurance, farm worker conditions and immigration, antibiotics and food safety, pesticides and genetically-modified seed patents, to name a few. Curious what can and has been done? IRE has put together a few examples of investigations into agribusiness:

Anonymous tipsters often prompt Monsanto farm investigations | St. Louis Beacon, 2013
William Freivogel of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting reports on Monsanto’s enforcement of its seed patents, and how the company has set up an anonymous tip line to find farmers who are infringing on its patents.

Beef’s Raw Edges |The Kansas City Star, 2012
Veteran reporter Mike McGraw spent months on this story, uncovering that “The industry increasingly relies on a mechanical tenderization process, increasing E. coli risks. Meanwhile, doctors and USDA say antibiotic overuse is leading to resistant bacteria in humans. And with consumption down, beef is fighting back with efforts to influence U.S. dietary guidelines.”

Got a suggestion?
If you have a story we should add to this list, let us know and it'll join our resource center! Email it to web@ire.org.


As Common as Dirt | Food and Environment Reporting Network/American Prospect, 2012
Tracie McMillan examines wage theft -- a practice rampant in agriculture unlike any other industry, and how the farm labor contractor system prevents oversight and robs farm workers of protection: “Farm-labor contractors give American produce growers what companies like China’s Foxconn offer to Apple: a way to outsource a costly and complicated part of the business, often saving money in the process and creating a firewall between the brand and the working conditions under which its products are made.”

What the USDA Doesn't Want You to Know About Antibiotics and Factory Farms | Mother Jones, 2011
Food and agriculture blogger Tom Philpott reports that the USDA scrubbed from its website research on antibiotics in food production and the rise of resistant bacteria, as well as ordered the researcher not to speak to the media. The report stated that “Use and misuse of antimicrobial drugs in food animal production and human medicine is the main factor accelerating antimicrobial resistance,” a fact the industry resists.

Agriculture is nation’s biggest polluter but usually goes unpunished | InvestigateWest, 2012
Robert McClure investigates hole in the Clean Water Act that allows agriculture to continue polluting: Forty years after Congress passed the Clean Water Act, the Lemire case highlights one of the biggest failings of this bedrock environmental law: farms are exempted from federal water-pollution regulation.”

In Sugar Price Supports, Sour Tastes for Consumers | Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, 2012
Amy Green reports that Americans pay $2 billion in increased food prices every year as a result of the inflated price of sugar.  “There has been a lot of tension between environmentalists and sugar growers in South Florida,” she has said of her reporting.  “But we don’t realize the way food policy has affected all Americans.”  

Our Dwindling Food Variety | National Geographic Magazine, 2011
John Tomanio visualizes the thousands of heirloom varieties that have been lost -- 93 percent for the 66 crops included in a comparison of seed varieties sold by commercial U.S. seed houses in 1903 with those in the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory in 1983

Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear | Vanity Fair, 2008
Reporting team Donald Barlett and James Steele investigate Monsanto’s strong-arm tactics against small farmers: “Monsanto already dominates America’s food chain with its genetically modified seeds. Now it has targeted milk production. Just as frightening as the corporation’s tactics–ruthless legal battles against small farmers–is its decades-long history of toxic contamination”

Harvesting Cash | The Washington Post, 2006
Sarah Cohen, Dan Morgan and Gilbert Gaul spent more than a year examining farm subsidies, finding more than $15 billion in “wasteful, unnecessary and redundant spending.”

Fraud on the Farm | NPR, 2005
In a series of radio reports, John Burnett explains how “federal crop insurance was created in the dust bowl days of the 1930s to help farmers survive the ravages of nature. But changes in the program have created a new type of farmer: one who farms only for the insurance money.

The ability to background a person  is an essential tool for journalists regardless of beat, as shown by news of Lennay Kekua, the deceased girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o who never existed but became one of the prominent storylines in sports this year.

The fact that Kekua was a complete fabrication is a seemingly rare case, but it’s far from the first time someone in a news article wasn’t who they appeared to be. For instance, in September the Chicago Tribune reported that a well-regarded school teacher had fallen on hard times and was living in a homeless shelter -- a tale that prompted his former students to begin raising funds online for the teacher. But later that month, after further digging, the Tribune revealed in a follow-up story that the teacher had inherited $247,000 in 2007 and gambled away nearly $180,000.

Stories like that of Manti Te’o, however, do more than serve as a cautionary tale for journalists about why to background their subjects -- they raise questions about how and when it needs to be done. Neither Te’o nor Kekau were public officials or powerful businesspeople. Neither had been accused of a crime. The story was simply of a football player and his girlfriend. Yet at some point the story grew into a phenomenon and captured the nation, and all the while more and more of it didn’t add up.

So when the alarm bells start sounding, what is the best way to reconcile the facts? Even more important, before reasons for skepticism emerge, what preventative steps can journalists take?

Deadspin reporters established the nonexistence of Lennay Kekua through Nexis, a search that can be replicated through simple tools available to all journalists -- public records.

Backgrounding is a tool IRE’s members have been honing since its inception. For starters, the resource center has dozens of tipsheets on the topic and he NICAR Net Tour has a wealth of links from staff trainers and journalists now at ProPublica, The Center for Public Integrity and The New York Times, among others. A site run by former IRE Board member Duff Wilson, reporter.org, has the feature “Who is John Doe?” that has many links and tips for putting together a person’s history.

Whether you’re putting together an exhaustive background search or need to run quick checks on deadline, there are plenty of paid and free resources available. Here’s a sample, though there are many more at the resources linked above:

People finding

Remember that many of them base their numbers on the same regional telephone books. Most now include e-mail address look ups. But many of the databases are out of date.

Public records gateways
Many of these sites have limited free access to data and are really portals to pay searches from their Web sites. But four sites - the National Association of Secretaries of State, NETRonline, Public Record Finder and especially Search Systems - offer lots of free public access to records. More at the NICAR Net Tour.

The Invisible Web
The Invisible Web is made up of tons of information invisible to most search engines. That's because most of the information is stored in databases that cannot be accessed by the software search engines used to compile their indexes. Fortunately, there are a few sites that can help you get at this information. Some of these pull from social media sites, which wouldn’t help verify a fake profile, but can help in backgrounding other ways:

141 Neff Annex   |   Missouri School of Journalism Columbia, MO 65211   |   573-882-2042   |   info@ire.org   |   Privacy Policy
crossmenu linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram