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Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Blue-ribbon documents

Use records such as these to produce your own award-winning work

Commentary by David Cullier

When trying to do our best, it’s sometimes helpful to learn from the best.

Many of the Sigma Delta Chi award-winning stories highlighted in this issue of Quill relied on public records. By using a document-state-of-mind scanning method, we can identify some of the records obtained by the reporters and apply that to our own reporting.

Here’s how: As you browse the award pages, take a few minutes to look up the stories online at each publication’s Web site. Sometimes you will find a site dedicated to the project by searching for the story’s title and writer’s name. Some of the investigative pieces include sidebars detailing what records were acquired.

Read the story and look for attribution to records, the parts of sentences we usually ignore as readers. If you’re short on time, conduct an electronic search for the words “record,” “document” or “according to.” When you find them in the story, think about where those records might be located in your own community or beat, and then request them.

For example, below are five stories that won SDX awards this year and the records they cited.

1. Big mess on campus

Ryan Gabrielson of the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz., found massive fraud, theft and nepotism in the Maricopa County Community College District by digging through thousands of public records. The stories state that Gabrielson acquired internal audit reports spanning five years, e-mails between auditors and school officials, district policies, board meeting minutes, budget records and enrollment records. Gabrielson’s series won for investigative reporting among newspapers of less than 100,000 circulation.

2. Cause for alarm

WTHR-TV in Indianapolis found that dozens of tornado sirens in a county struck by a deadly tornado didn’t work. The television reporters acquired a county database detailing siren tests, showing that sirens failed 4,689 times over the previous six years. The station won an SDX award for public service reporting for top-25 markets.

3. House of lies

Debbie Cenziper of The Miami Herald investigated waste in the Miami-Dade Housing Agency. She examined hundreds of project files, federal records, invoices, budgets, construction correspondence, government databases, canceled checks (scanned in and provided online for all to see), and audits, also provided online for readers. Cenziper’s work earned her an SDX award in investigative reporting for newspapers with more than 100,000 circulation. She also won the Pulitzer Prize for her project.

4. Delivering on deadline when it’s deadly

The Portland (Maine) Press Herald demonstrated good deadline reporting when covering a grisly murder where a 31-year-old cook shot and burned a man then dismembered three women. The reporters acquired a high school yearbook, court records and traffic infractions. It also appeared that “people-finder” records were used to find his previous addresses. David Hench, Gregory Kesich, Trevor Maxwell and Beth Quimby won the deadline-writing award for newspapers less than 100,000 circulation.

5. The hole in the city’s heart

Deborah Sontag of The New York Times detailed waste and bungling in reconstruction at Ground Zero since Sept. 11, 2001. Sontag acquired notes from officials’ meetings, port authority budget records, letters between officials, design guidelines, construction estimates and secret videotapes of memorial jury meetings that weren’t public but were viewed by the reporter anyway. Sontag’s work won an SDX award for non-deadline reporting of newspapers with more than 100,000 circulation.

These are just some of the records referenced in the stories; No doubt the reporters gleaned many others that they did not mention. But with quick document-driven scanning, we can learn from the best, and then apply the knowledge to do our best.

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