5 tips to foster watchdog culture in your newsroom

Editor’s Note: This guest post was authored by Lindsey Anderson (@L_M_Anderson), a Digital First Media reporter for the Las Cruces Sun. On Jan. 14 and 15, Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) provided our DFM colleagues in New Mexico with their intensive TNT program (Total Newsroom Training). In the spirit of sharing, Lindsey has written up five key takeaways from the program. Anderson will attend #NICAR14 as part of our DFM Represents program later this winter. 

Megan Luther with Investigative Reporters & Editors stopped by the Las Cruces Sun-News newsroom this week to train us — and some of our colleagues from the El Paso Times, the Alamogordo Daily News, the Farmington Daily Times, and the Carlsbad Current-Argus — on how to foster a watchdog culture in our newsroom.

Here are some key things I learned and am already putting into practice:

1. Start small. A watchdog culture doesn’t mean every story is a 4,000-word investigation. It can be as simple as not taking statements and reports at face value. Ask “Where did you get that statistic?” “How do you know that?” “What caused that?” A basic story reports that officials say teen pregnancy rates are dropping. A good story perceives a pattern. A great story explains why that pattern is occurring.

2. Megan’s litmus test for whether something is worth an investigation: Does it affect everyday people? Does it plow new ground? Are there victims? Does it offer room for reform? As Megan said, you can’t fix stupid; if the solution to a problem is for people to stop being stupid, it’s probably not worth your time to investigate it.

3. Background, background, background: Newsrooms should require background checks of individuals who are subjects of profiles and features. Background new hires, even in sports. Request job candidates’ resumes or find them on LinkedIn. Background a new business that’s coming to town and its top executives. You don’t want to be the news organization who extols the benefits of a company moving into your town only to find they have 50 OSHA violations. Even if you’re writing about unemployment benefits from someone’s point of view, background them. Check civil and criminal filings, sex offender registries, OSHA, the federal government contract blacklist. Bookmark these links:

4. Keep a data arsenal. Key to include calls for service logs from law enforcement, city and county claims, births, marriages, deaths, accident reports and data, budgets and payrolls. These datasheets will come in handy when working on a story — and they’ll lend themselves to a vast number of stories.

5. Before you request public records, do your research. Know the forms, processes, program names, formats and more that are filled out before requesting data. Check federal agencies’ FOIA logs to see what others have requested. Look for data manuals and presentations describing what data an organization must keep and for how long.

Join the discussion! What suggestions or tips would you add to Lindsey’s list? Leave a comment or tweet us at @ThunderdomeDFM.

More takeaways: Throughout the two days of IRE training in Las Cruces, DFM colleagues tweeted some takeaways with hashtag #IRENM.

By Lindsey Anderson

Lindsey Anderson is an education and border reporter at the Las Cruces Sun-News. Her favorite stories to cover include issues kids face in southern New Mexico, from teen pregnancy to educational disparities. She graduated from American University in 2012 and has a very expensive travel addiction.

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