Talking with NCPR About Tuberculosis in Vermont

February 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve been covering an outbreak of Tuberculosis at Charlotte Central School, and recently spoke with North Country Radio’s Brian Mann about what’s going on and how officials are handling it.

After we spoke, the Vermont Department of Health announced that eight more students at the school tested positive for TB after the initial round of testing.

Is ‘Serial’ Journalism?

December 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

In a word: Yes.

(Note: If you don’t know what Serial is – first of all welcome to the Internet – and come back in 10 hours when you’ve finished listening.)

I’m putting this here because I think Serial’s success has perked up a lot of journalists’ ears (especially if they are, like me, in radio) and made them think about what they can take from Serial and apply to their own work.

Media critic (and my former professor) Dan Kennedy posted a commentary on his blog by journalist Brian C. Jones that makes an interesting argument that Serial isn’t journalism because it launched before the journalist involved – This American Life’s Sarah Koenig – knew what the outcome would be.

My objection is that when the reporting phase is exhausted, it’s crucial to understand what kind of a story it is, and maybe whether it is a story at all. At the very least, the writer has to be honest with listeners as to the “why” of the story.

Jones’ problem, he writes, is that Koenig is one episode away from the conclusion of her look into the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and it seems likely she won’t have a “He did it!” or “He’s innocent!” conclusion to cap it all off. Not doing so, he argues, just causes a lot of harm to everyone involved in the case and doesn’t really accomplish anything. Therefore, he says, it’s voyeurism and not journalism.

Last week Koenig read from a letter from the defendant saying that his psyche has been bruised by her persistent questioning of his character. I imagine some prosecutors, cops and others whose work has been scrutinized feel the same.

I disagree with the argument that this disqualifies Serial from being journalism.

While I have sympathy for the family of the victim and the defendant with respect to the pain of being in the spotlight, I think Jones’ criticism is off the mark. To condemn a journalist for scrutinizing the work of police and prosecutor, and for the discomfort that’s caused, is to condemn accountability journalism. Accountability journalism is never comfortable when done well, and it shouldn’t have to be. Public officials – both the law and society in general agree – are and should be subject to greater scrutiny.

As to the harm caused to Adnan by digging into this case – Jones is right, it must be difficult. But (guilty or not) he was convicted of killing a girl. Is that not more harmful to his reputation or emotional health than anything Koenig ever could do? Does the outcome of her reporting (or lack thereof) somehow retroactively change the calculus here?

Journalists spend every day asking difficult questions and making people uncomfortable. Much of the time, especially for investigative journalists, this never pans out. That’s okay. But is it suddenly not journalistic work if they then publish their findings, painstakingly taking the time to note all the things they’re not sure about.

The only real difference between investigative reporting and what Koenig has done here is that the things that don’t pan out generally don’t go public, because it would require far too much ink or air time or pixels to say “we checked this out and there are a bunch of caveats but we still have questions.” But this is a podcast dedicated to exactly that, and Koenig openly acknowledges the weaknesses in what she’s found as well as the emotional difficulty involved in this digging – the criticism mentions Koenig’s own disclosure as evidence against her.

To say it’s not journalism because there isn’t a clear “why” is overly simplistic. Journalism is about creating a more informed public and moving conversations forward, and Koenig has done that.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Jones.

Stories of Addiction

June 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

In my role as digital reporter for Vermont Public Radio, I’ve been working to covering addiction in Vermont, which has garnered national attention since Governor Peter Shumlin’s State of the State speech was devoted entirely to opiate addiction.

At VPR, I’ve covered the issue from the angle of treatment, statistical reporting, and how the state’s drug economy is sometimes fueled by illegal firearms trafficking (That story was picked up by NPR).

Most recently, I’ve been focused on the impacts of addiction on the families and friends of addicts.

Brennan Dekeersgieter died of a heroin overdose in the spring of 2013, and his family has been trying to come to grips with the loss for more than a year. I spoke with his parents, Robert and Margery, and his siblings Caitlin and Colin about Brennan and about how they think about him in his absence, and how they move forward. This is their story.

On a reporting trip covering one of these stories with VPR’s digital producer, Angela Evancie, we were talking about the fact that many drug-related deaths in Vermont communities exist without memorials. Despite this, their loved ones and friends may see a place or a thing, or hear a song, or smell a smell, and think immediately of their loss. In this way, addiction’s effects are extremely widespread in Vermont.

In an effort to explore and understand the way addiction effects Vermont, Angela and I worked with VPR Web Developer Matt Parrilla, News Director John Dillon, and Director of Digital Services Jonathan Butler to create Traces.

From the page (which you should check out, because Matt did an amazing job with it):

Drug addiction affects many in our community. Whether you’ve lost a family member to a drug overdose, lost touch with a friend who uses, or are fighting your own addiction, daily reminders—objects, places, people—can be anywhere. Traces is a collection of those reminders and the memories they evoke.

Traces was also featured in the public media trade publication, Current. From that article:

The project, titled Traces, grew out of a reporting project between VPR web producer Angela Evancie and reporter Taylor Dobbs. From November to February, the team visited small towns in southern Vermont to report on the intersection of drug possession and gun ownership in the state. Vermont has both lax gun laws and a high rate of addiction to opiates, meth and other substances, fostering an illicit market in which people trade guns for drugs, Evancie said.

“We found ourselves going to a lot of motel parking lots and gun stores around town and taking pictures and videos of these empty spaces,” she said. “We knew that things had happened there and we knew that, for certain people in town, these places had probably surfaced memories.”

Using Data to Investigate

April 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

Start with data:

New job: VPR Digital Reporter

August 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be joining the news team at Vermont Public Radio as their digital reporter.

As news consumers move online for their content, many organizations, including VPR, have made a great effort to create robust and user-friendly web outlets. At VPR, they decided the next step was to hire a reporter to focus on digital-first news stories. That means the majority of my work will be published online, either in collaboration with VPR’s experienced  radio reporters or based on my own original reporting in the Chittenden County area.

I have long admired VPR’s dedication to excellence in journalism and commitment to the exciting developments in digital journalism, and I’m thrilled to be joining them in their efforts in early September.

“Filling the News Gap” Panel Discussion

June 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

I participated in a panel discussion last month about the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, sponsored by Cambridge Community Television. Below is a video of the discussion, via CCTV:

 

Filling the News Gap in Cambridge and Beyond: Covering Chaos from Cambridge Community Television on Vimeo.

Panel to discuss citizen media and the marathon

May 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

Taylor Dobbs:

I’ll be discussing covering the Marathon Bombings and the Watertown manhunt amid a chaotic breaking news atmosphere this Saturday as part of a panel moderated by Northeastern University Professor Dan Kennedy.

Originally posted on Media Nation:

This Saturday, May 4, I’ll be moderating a panel at the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library on how nontraditional journalism and citizen media responded to the Boston Marathon bombings. Titled “Covering Chaos,” the panel will be held from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. and will include:

  • Josh Stearns, journalism and public media campaign director for the media-reform organization Free Press and an expert on verification and trust with regard to citizen media.
  • Taylor Dobbs, a journalism student at Northeastern University whose coverage at the finish line and again in Watertown was featured on the website Medium. Dobbs wrote about what he learned in a recent guest post for Media Nation.
  • Catherine Cloutier, a producer for Boston.com, the Boston Globe’s free website, which was a crucial source of information in the aftermath of the bombings. Cloutier was among those posting to the site’s live blog.

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