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Persistence and deep research prove strong allies for reporting project on state’s new approach to LA County’s unhoused

Persistence and deep research prove strong allies for reporting project on state’s new approach to LA County’s unhoused

Picture of Merdies Hayes
(Image by Minh Nguyễn Hoàng via Pixabay)
(Image by Minh Nguyễn Hoàng via Pixabay)

I’m writing this after six months of research, drafts and rewrites for my fellowship series about a new California health program called CalAIM, or California Advancing and Innovating Medi-Cal.

It was a rewarding journey, but one sometimes beset with disappointment when I was not able to make necessary contacts by phone. You should not allow this to discourage your reporting. Often when dealing with government agencies, whether national, state or local, you will have setbacks in trying to contact those who may contribute valuable information to your subject. I found that the best method is to remain persistent.

Try to contact them every day. If the source is important to the story, do not give up. You should leave a message — but don’t count squarely on this because, in a bureaucracy, your request is often considered “low priority.” While waiting on the response, research as much as possible about that specific organization so that when you do make contact, you will have the most pertinent questions available.

My story ended up being just shy of 4,000 words, and I relied on more than a dozen different sources to find out more about whether local homeless outreach agencies were aligned with the goals of CalAIM. 

During your project’s research phase, you’ll likely want to cross-reference your findings. In writing about the homeless, many surveys and counts take place regularly. Sometimes these assessments may conflict, so it is important to look closely at the different data sets as you discover them. Remember, “data” is only another source for your story. The most reliable data sets are usually found in government sources, various think tanks, researchers and academics, and interest groups. Be watchful of the latter because sometimes there is bias in these findings. You would not want to include prejudicial information in your story. It detracts from a reliable report.

Homelessness is pervasive across the nation. The issue was exacerbated by the pandemic. Because my newsroom is located in South Los Angeles, I am witness every day to the situation firsthand as I make my way to and from work. It was a passionate subject for me, yet I was very careful not to allow my personal feelings to intercede. It’s easy to blame “society,” “government,” or suggest a “pathological” rationale for those who find themselves living on the street. Don’t allow your self-contrived perceptions on the issue cloud your objectivity.

There are myriad reasons why homelessness has expanded so rapidly — across both ethnicity and culture — so you should take care when discussing the reasons why this issue is so prevalent in our communities. Remember, you’re only the messenger. Don’t be tempted to suggest in your story what the various “talking heads” or politicians may construe as the reason why Los Angeles has an estimated 70,000 homeless persons.

At times the research process may seem a bit overwhelming. Remember to limit your findings to what is pertinent to your story. Try not to generalize and remain specific to the topic. For instance, in Los Angeles County, the board of supervisors may propose — and later vote on — a measure regarding homelessness once a month. The same is true of the Los Angeles City Council as well as the many municipalities within the county proposing solutions to their local homeless problem. Then there’s the state legislature and, ultimately, the governor’s office. Be watchful of these proposals and only select and include those most germane to your project.

The many agencies that conduct studies on homelessness are also a good source for information. Also, some universities will conduct their own research into the subject and can provide unique information not always found in government studies. Make use of these academic papers. Study them carefully for bias. Contact the lead researcher for further information. Often, these persons are happy to assist your work (and receive a little free publicity for their research project at the same time).

Finally, your senior fellow can be your most valuable asset (and advocate) for your project. These are seasoned reporters most adept at investigative journalism. They are there to assist you throughout the project. Their advice during your rewrite and final submission is invaluable in presenting a coherent, tightly-written and engaging story. 

I had a rewarding experience with the 2022 California Fellowship. You will too. You will meet new colleagues, make new friends and learn to be a better journalist from some of the top individuals in the profession. It can be an arduous task, but the finished product will be something you can be proud to present to the reading public.

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