Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dig for documents to give breaking news context

When you’re covering breaking news, do you use documents in your reporting? If not, maybe you should. Pulitzer Prize-winner Daniel Gilbert turned to documents when reporting the Gabrielle Giffords shooting story for The Wall Street Journal. It took persistence, but it paid off.

When Gilbert’s editor asked him how fast he could get on a plane to Arizona, he was right on it. In no time he was out of Houston and on the ground in Tucson, going after pieces for The Journal’s team coverage of the story. Early on, Gilbert said, he made a FOIA request for Pima Community College records on suspected shooter Jared Lee Loughner, who had attended the school. He said that when he asked for all communications and reports concerning Loughner and campus police, “They shot back with, ‘we can’t release that.'”

But he didn’t let up, and got the documents--which revealed that faculty and students feared for their safety when in class with Loughner. Gilbert said police stood guard outside a classroom because an instructor felt Loughner might become violent. embedded the records into the online story, a practice Gilbert finds enhances the reader’s experience.

Gilbert recommends developing a “document state of mind,” encouraging reporters to think about how records can corroborate or contradict what people say. “Numbers don’t have an agenda. Sometimes the people behind the numbers do,” he said.

Before joining The Journal, Gilbert reported for the Bristol Herald Courier in Virginia. He won the 2010 Pulitzer for public service for his series on conflicts over natural gas wealth in Southwest Virginia.

Gilbert spoke to my digital journalism students during his visit to Washington and Lee University earlier this week. Thanks to Toni Locy and the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation for bringing him to campus.

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