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Ace reporters share strategies for landing big projects with impact

Ace reporters share strategies for landing big projects with impact

Picture of Giles Bruce
Photos show members of the Marshallese community in Dubuque, Iowa. The community’s overlooked health needs were the focus of Dan
Photos show members of the Marshallese community in Dubuque, Iowa. The community’s overlooked health needs were the focus of Dan Diamond’s high-impact 2020 National Fellowship series, which spurred legislation in Congress to restore Medicaid coverage for some 100,000 Pacific Islanders.
(Photo by M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

It’s simply not enough for a reporter to spend months working on a project then publish it, hoping it has an impact.

Nowadays journalists have to make sure the people affected by their story, as well as those with the power to make changes, read it — and that the presentation is powerful enough to keep audiences engaged.

This week, three veteran journalists shared their strategies for ensuring their stories have the maximum impact, speaking to fellow reporters taking part in the 2021 California Fellowship via Zoom.

“Who needs to see your stories? How can you get it to them? How can you identify the specific issues that are blocking something from being realized or a right from being wronged?” Center for Health Journalism director Michelle Levander asked the presenters Tuesday.

ProPublica reporter Neil Bedi told the fellows it all starts with a good idea. He looks for things that are “obviously wrong or corrupt.”

“Is there something wrong that you can explain in a sentence or two?” he said. “Is there a clear, obvious way to fix it that is just not happening, and that transparency, and really great journalism, can shed light on?” 

He and former colleagues from the Tampa Bay Times found that idea when they discovered a local sheriff’s department was profiling and targeting residents the agency had concluded, by way of predictive algorithm, were “destined for a life of crime,” as Bedi put it.

“We knew that felt wrong,” he said.

They began by making numerous public records requests about the predictive policing initiative.

“We were able to show with documents and data that what it really amounted to was harassment,” Bedi said. “Behind the scenes, this program's main goal was to send deputies to people's homes and make their lives miserable. Former deputies actually told us that was the mission. And the goal was to push these people and their families out of the county.”

Their project, “Targeted,” part of the 2020 National Fellowship, was a finalist for the 2021 Goldsmith Prize.

The reporting team wanted to have powerful visual and interactive elements to “make sure the story resonates with people who aren't going to sit down and read a 6,000 word piece,” as Bedi put it.

They photographed each of the families in front of their homes, where the sheriff’s deputies would show up to monitor and harass families.

The reporters discovered police body cam videos that showed the program in action. In one video, deputies harassed the sister of a teenager who wasn’t home. In another, officers tried to detain a boy with autism who was sensitive to touch.

In an effort to be fully transparent, the newspaper dedicated a page online to the sheriff’s office’s response to the accusations.

Bedi’s partner on the project, Tampa Bay Times deputy editor of investigations Kathleen McGrory, said they hoped the project would have lasting impact. So they identified stakeholders who could push for change and presented them with their findings.

“Sometimes the absence of comment or feedback or action from community leaders and policymakers becomes your story,” McGrory said.

The newspaper also wrote a profile of the local sheriff who spearheaded the program, to illustrate how he had amassed so much political power.

To promote big stories like this one, McGrory suggests news outlets do “Ask Me Anything” forums on Reddit, town halls or community Zoom meetings.

She also recommends paying close attention to the conversation the project sparks on social media and elsewhere. A legal analysis of the program turned into a follow-up story. A national social justice organization put out a petition to end the initiative. A federal lawsuit was filed to stop it.

“It’s really important to stick with the story,” McGrory said. “It means checking in with your sources after you've published, asking what the responses have been, trying to find out what the developments are, checking in with community leaders and policymakers and, if they're not getting back to you, checking in with them again. Just staying with it, and staying really organized.”

National health reporter Dan Diamond was strategic about when he published stories, written for Politico, about the country’s failure to protect the health of Pacific Islanders harmed by the American military’s nuclear testing program.

Diamond, who now works for The Washington Post, learned about the topic a couple years ago at a “Medicare For All” rally at the U.S. Capitol. There he met health workers from Iowa who were advocating on behalf of immigrants from the Marshall Islands, where the nuclear testing took place after World War II. The U.S. provided them with Medicaid coverage but later took it away as part of 1990s welfare reform.

“For ultimate impact, it is important to find the policymakers who are going to either pick up your story and use it to push for changes, or the policymakers who are on the fence.” — Dan Diamond, The Washington Post

“I didn't know this issue. I didn't know about this population,” Diamond said. “And I was, on an emotional level, disgusted by what I was hearing from them: that the U.S. had used their islands to test nuclear weapons and made promises that were broken, and that no one really seemed to be paying attention to it.”

He traveled to Iowa, where the health workers organized a dinner at which he met Marshallese immigrants, some of whom would later become part of his reporting.

Then it came time to figure out when to run the story.

“In terms of making an impact, we really thought about it from a political perspective: When is the maximum time for people to be paying attention to issues in Iowa?” Diamond said. “And the decision was January 2020. That's when the Iowa caucuses are about to happen, that's when all the Democratic candidates will be there.”

After the story came out, he was able to get on-the-record reactions from the leading Democrats running for president.

Then the pandemic happened, and, as Diamond said, “this story kept falling further and further behind on my priority list.” So he applied for, and was awarded, a 2020 National Fellowship. He said it created accountability for him and his editors, forcing them to carve out the time to focus on the subject.

He learned the coronavirus was tearing through the Marshallese community in Iowa. Many didn’t speak English and understand much of the public health messaging around things like social distancing. They often worked at poultry farms and plants that were hit hard by COVID-19. They had largely lacked health care for decades and thus had high rates of preexisting conditions that left them susceptible to the virus.

“I talked to researchers who made the point: If there was one population that was most vulnerable to COVID-19 in the United States, it is arguably the Marshallese,” Diamond said.

After his fellowship story published in December 2020, Congress, in its end-of-year spending deal, voted to restore Medicaid coverage for roughly 100,000 Pacific Islanders.

“For ultimate impact, it is important to find the policymakers who are going to either pick up your story and use it to push for changes, or the policymakers who are on the fence,” Diamond said.

“By reporting this story and shadowing aides on Capitol Hill and simply just being around, that created some momentum and pressure for everyone involved in the Capitol Hill push. Just knowing that Politico is staying on this issue led to more interest in pursuing the issue, and in some ways led to accountability and impact at the end.”

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