Al Tompkins


Consulting clients: ABC Owned and Operated Stations, Telemundo Television Stations; Meredith Television Stations; Scripps Howard Television, NBC owned and operation stations Promotions Directors; Stations; Hearst Argyle Television Stations; Gannett Television Stations; Griffin Communications; NBC Owned and Operated Stations; New York Times Television Stations; Cox Television; Cox Cable, Cox Washington DC Bureau, RUV TV (Iceland), Belo Television Stations; Freedom Newspapers of Florida, Freedom Newspapers of North Carolina, The Raleigh News & Observer, Shurz Broadcast stations, Radio and Television News Directors Association; RTNDA Canada; Radio and Television News Directors Foundation; The Ford Foundation; Hampton University, Kings University, Belmont University, Western Kentucky University, Middle Tennessee State University Alabama Broadcasters Association; Arkansas Broadcasters Association; Oklahoma Broadcasters Association; Hawaii Association of Broadcasters; Texas Association of Broadcasters; Ohio AP Broadcasters Association; Pennsylvania Broadcasters Association; Illinois Broadcasters Association; Washington State Broadcasters Association; Georgia Broadcasters Association; Tennessee Broadcasters Association; Louisiana Broadcasters Association; New York State Broadcasters Association; West Virginia Broadcasters Association; Missouri Broadcasters Association; Virginia Broadcasters Association; North Carolina Broadcasters Association; South Carolina Association of Broadcasters; Wisconsin Broadcasters Association; Iowa Broadcasters Association;Oregon Broadcasters, North Carolina Press Association, Alaska Broadcasters Association, New Mexico Broadcasters AssociationNational Academy of Television Arts and Sciences -- NATAS (Pennsylvania); NATAS (Washington DC); NATAS (Miami); WMC-TV; WSB-TV; KXAS-TV; KHOU-TV; WNEM-TV; KPHO-TV; WEWS-TV; WPTV-TV; WESH-TV; WKMG-TV; WTVW-TV; WPBF-TV; WHO-TV; KWTV-TV; WZZM-TV; WNEP-TV; WTKR-TV; KTHV-TV; KCTV-TV; WGAL; WTVF; WSBT See discussion of Poynter consulting in Poynter Ethics FAQ.


Veterans force NBC’s Brian Williams to apologize

NBC News anchor Brian Williams said on the evening broadcast Wednesday that he made a mistake when he said on air last week that he had been in a military helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in the early days of the American invasion of Iraq 12 years ago.

On Friday, Williams had told a story on air about a veteran he met in Iraq. They stayed in touch over the years and Williams invited the soldier to a hockey game. At the game, they were surprised that the game announcer told the crowd about the chance encounter after Williams’ chopper was shot down.

Williams said on the air:

“The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG. Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”

The story was repeated by the announcer at the hockey game.

After the story aired, soldiers who served in Iraq began complaining.

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Stars and Stripes Capital Hill reporter Travis Tritten first reported  Wednesday that he noticed the chatter on Facebook and began “pulling threads.” Tritten told me, “Your gut tells you there is something there you have to look into.”

Tritten spoke with several officers and soldiers who were on the ground in Iraq and had first-hand knowledge of the RPG incident, he said.

Tritten became convinced that Williams was on a helicopter that was behind the one that was hit. “It appears they were far behind, in a different formation of aircraft,” he said.  Some of those who posted on Facebook said the NBC crew was up to an hour behind the chopper that was hit.

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“A lot of these crew members have been pissed off about this since 2003. One guy says every time he sees Brian Williams he starts to shake, he is so angry,” Tritten said.

This NBC Dateline video from March 26, 2003 — soon after the attack – has Williams reporting that one of the choppers ahead of him had taken a direct hit from an RPG. The video does not show the attack and it is not clear how close the attack was to Williams’ ride.

Go to 2:12 on this video to hear about the attack on the helicopter convoy.
Contrary to what the soldiers who complained on Facebook claimed, the 2003 story appears to be reporting that the chopper hit by the RPG was in the same formation as Williams was flying in. In fact, Williams reported in 2003, the incident was so fresh when the helicopters landed that the crew from the helicopter that was hit by the RPG was too shaken to talk on camera.

NBC Publicity pointed me to a note that Williams posted on Facebook saying he “felt terrible” about making the mistake and he had “no desire to fictionalize the incident.” He said the “constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area and the fog of memory over 12 years made me conflate the two.”

williams facebook

This was not the first time he told the story of the incident.

In May 2008, Williams wrote on NBC News’ blog that it was not the chopper he was riding in, but one in front of him that was hit by an RPG.

I was with my friend and NBC News Military Analyst Wayne Downing, a retired 4-Star Army General. Wayne and I were riding along as part of an Army mission to deliver bridge components to the Euphrates River, so that the invading forces of the 3rd Infantry could cross the river on their way to Baghdad. We came under fire by what appeared to be Iraqi farmers with RPG’s and AK-47′s. The Chinook helicopter flying in front of ours (from the 101st Airborne) took an RPG to the rear rotor, as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire. We were forced down and stayed down — for the better (or worse) part of 3 days and 2 nights.

In early 2010, when Williams spoke at a commencement at Notre Dame, the school’s website included a bio that mentioned the RPG hitting a chopper, but that version of the story was different. The bio didn’t say the RPG hit the chopper Williams was in:

While covering the war in Iraq, Williams became the first NBC News correspondent to reach Baghdad after the U.S. military invasion of the city. Just days into the war, Williams was traveling on a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter mission when the lead helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. Williams spent three days and two nights in the Iraqi desert south of Najaf, with a mechanized armored tank platoon of the Army’s Third Infantry Division providing protection. During the war, Williams traveled to seven nations throughout the Middle East during his seven-week overseas deployment.

On March 23, 2013, 10 years to the day after the helicopter incident, Brian Williams appeared on the David Letterman Show and told the story of being shot at.
Go to 2:58 in the video to hear him tell the story.

Williams said, “two of our four helicopters were hit by ground-fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK 47.”

He told Letterman, “We figure out how to land safely and we did. We landed very quickly and hard and we put down and we were stuck, four birds in the middle of the desert and we were north out ahead of the other Americans.”

Williams mentioned the controversy Wednesday evening on NBC Nightly News:

“On this broadcast last week, in an effort to honor a veteran who protected me and so many others, after a ground-fire incident in the desert in the Iraq War invasion I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago. It did not take long to hear from some brave men and women in the air crews who were also in that desert.  I want to apologize.
I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft. We landed after the ground fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert.

This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and by extension our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served everywhere while I did not. I hope they know they have my greatest respect and also now, my apology.”


Brian Williams apology on NBC News. Read more


What journalists need to know about the FCC chairman’s net neutrality recommendation landed one heck of a guest opinion today, and journalists need to understand what the opinion means.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote that “the time to settle the Net Neutrality question has arrived.” He went on to outline what he will recommend to his fellow commissioners when they meet later this month.

Wheeler’s main points:

  • The commission has to step in and stop broadband network operators (mostly cable companies) from allowing big data users to have a fast-lane to deliver their data.
  • The FCC should consider the Internet as a utility and, as Wheeler writes, “use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open internet protections.”
  • The rules that apply to wired networks’ data delivery should apply to mobile too. No blocking or prioritizing data delivery there either.
  • And (this is big) Wheeler recommends, “To preserve incentives for broadband operators to invest in their networks, my proposal will modernize Title II, tailoring it for the 21st century, in order to provide returns necessary to construct competitive networks. For example, there will be no rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling.”

What do all of those terms mean?

  • “Net neutrality”: This was a phrase invented by Columbia University professor Tim Wu to describe the idea that all data should move at the same speed. Netflix, for example, which is a huge data user, should not be able to pay extra and move its data before a TV station trying to stream video or a newspaper trying to post a news story. The main idea is that the networks would be neutral and favor nobody’s data over another. The broadband operators said if they can’t charge more to big users, the smaller users are subsidizing the big guys, but that message has never caught on.
  • “Title II”: This is the crux of the change that will now likely come. Title II would assert the same authority over broadband providers that the government holds over utility companies. But Wheeler carefully crafted his suggestion to “modernize” Title II.

    Title II is short for Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. So yes, don’t be surprised if some say “you mean the Internet will be governed by a law passed in 1934?” Well, yes. When it was written, it regulated wires and radio. But the act was updated in 1996, and Wheeler suggests more changes to bring it into the Internet age.

    Title II requires those it governs to act “in the public interest.” It also says utilities must not “make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.”  (see SEC. 202. [47 U.S.C. 202]).

    That would seem to satisfy everyone who wants providers not to have a say about the content they deliver.
  • “Tariffs and taxes”: This is significant. Chairman Wheeler suggests that even though the ISPs would be treated as utilities, governments cannot add taxes and tariffs on the service as they do on other utilities. Cable companies have said if the FCC placed data delivery under Title II, it would place consumers on the hook “for an astonishing $11 billion in new fees.”

    This speaks to what ISPs feared most, that the government would start messing with rates as they do with phone and cable rates. Wheeler’s plan is to keep hands off rates and let the marketplace set the price you and data providers pay.

    Without this “modernization” as Wheeler calls it, Internet service providers would be treated just like phone companies are now, heavily regulated and taxed. You should note that phone services, both cell and hardline, are already covered under Title II as “common carrier” utilities. But Internet services on cell phones are not. Internet services currently are considered to be “information service providers.” That different in classification is what could allow the ISPs to manage data delivery and charge for fast-track service.
  • “Unbundling the last mile”: Chairman Wheeler threw the telcos a bone by saying he did not favor “last-mile unbundling,” also known as “local-loop unbundling.” Unbundling the last mile is the idea that an ISP must allow competitors access to their delivery lines (think of it as the lines from the cable company to your home or office) at a wholesale price. So Verizon, for example, would have to allow a direct competitor to have access to Verizon’s delivery infrastructure without having to build their own. The idea is being tried in some EU countries where the ISPs are national monopolies. The notion, still unproven, is that by allowing startups to avoid big infrastructure costs, it encourages competition.

    But the National Cable Television Association says far from encouraging innovation, allowing the “last mile” provision discourages it.

Reaction to Wheeler’s op-ed:

  • The Washington Post:

    It all adds up to the most significant intervention ever undertaken by federal regulators to make sure the Web remains a level playing field. It is, depending on your ideology, either an unprecedented example of government overreach that will ruin the republic or the most egalitarian, pro-competitive thing the FCC may do in the 21st century.

  • Chris Lewis, vice president of government affairs for Public Knowledge (a pro-net neutrality group):

    This is a historic announcement by Chairman Wheeler, and a decision that consumers have been demanding for some time. Americans have waited over a year for the FCC to restore the Open Internet protections that were vacated by the DC Circuit Court.

    Chairman Wheeler’s proposal appears to not only restore these protections, but also place them under the strongest legal authority at his disposal by reclassifying broadband as a Title II service under the Communications Act. The Wheeler proposal is designed to prohibit blocking and paid prioritization, ensuring that no innovator or internet user will have to ask their ISP for permission to reach all parts of the internet or offer new services.

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.):

    “This is a victory for the Internet.”

  • Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) in an email to conservatives today, not speaking directly to Wheeler’s op-ed but to the concept of regulating the ISPs:

    “This is truly a slippery slope.”

  • On Wall Street:
    Comcast up 2.9%
    Time Warner up 2.18%
    Charter Communications up 3.73%

What’s next?

Read more
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How a listener’s complaint improved NPR’s reporting

Dan Charles, NPR Agriculture Reporter

Dan Charles, NPR Agriculture Reporter

National Public Radio’s Dan Charles taught journalists two lessons Monday morning. One lesson is that simple solutions to complex problems usually don’t work. The other lesson is when your public takes the time to contact you about your reporting, and you take the comments seriously, you may just find an even better story.

Charles is NPR’s agriculture reporter and on Jan. 12, he reported a story about the problem of nitrates that run off of farm fields into Iowa’s waterways.

Charles is a careful reporter, he has studied science, technology and international affairs. He has written about fertilizer use in China and has a degree in business in international affairs.

In his story he reported;

“Farmers spread nitrogen fertilizer on their corn fields, it turns into nitrate and then it commonly runs into streams through networks of underground tile pipes that drain the soil.”

Sarah Carlson,  Practical Farmers of Iowa

Sarah Carlson, Practical Farmers of Iowa

But a listener, Sarah Carlson, heard Charles’ story on the radio as she was driving to work and, she said, she hoped her beloved NPR would not fall into the same old storyline that is so often accepted not just as fact, but truth.

While it is a fact, as Charles reported, that farmers spread fertilizer on their fields and some of that nitrogen-based fertilizer produces nitrates that leak into waterways, that is only part of the issue. Carlson and her group Practical Farmers of Iowa, say the biggest issue may be that just using less fertilizer won’t solve the nitrogen runoff problems. A bigger issue, she says, is that farmers don’t farm their fields year-round. Decades ago, she says farmers planted corn which grew from May to October. Then they planted a winter crop including wheat or rye or oats. But now because of market pressures, specialized elevators and other complexities, farmers often don’t plant a winter crop, they plant corn or soybeans and the field is bare in the winter. And that’s an invitation for nitrogen runoff.

See, when farmers fertilize fields and plant crops, the crops suck up that nitrogen. There is not much runoff when the nitrogen is being sucked up by the plants. The real problem comes when the fields are bare, between crops. The nitrogen that once was consumed by winter crops can run off in late winter thaws. Carlson and her group urge farmers to do what they used to do a couple of decades ago, plant winter “cover” crops that would consume the soil nitrogen and prevent runoff.

Carlson fired off a detailed email to Charles.  Filled with frustration, she loaded several paragraphs of her email with links and citations. Before I tell you what Charles did in response, take a moment to think about what you would do if you opened such an email. Would your response be “great, a loving listener wants to discuss my story. I am pleased the public cares enough to write.” Or would it be more like “Great, a know-it-all listener wants to challenge my story. I hope I didn’t screw something up.”

“I know her group and respect their work, so I took it seriously,” Charles told me by email. (He responded to my questions while logged in from an airplane.) Charles said the sentence that Sarah objected to was the shorthanded way he explained where nitrates come from, “(I) felt like it was a detail that just couldn’t fit into that first story.”

But he said, the more he thought about it, the more he saw the email as an opportunity to go deeper on how “crop systems” work, something beyond conventional one-liner wisdom that doesn’t fully explain why waterways are so polluted with nitrates. NPR’s response to that e-mail complaint was more than their listener expected.

“What I wanted was some kind of follow-up,” Carlson said in a phone interview. “If not a follow-up, at least I hoped maybe he would change his words in the future.”

Charles did more than that. Carlson said Charles called and said “I want to do the story on you and how you nudged me.” His second story did just that. Charles reported on Morning Edition that he knew his listener was right, that the nitrogen runoff story was not as simple as most journalists report and that Carlson has a point worth considering.

“It is good that he did that,” Carlson said. “I was really happy with the follow-up story. I thought he nailed it. He explained it correctly and brought to light what the potential solution is to this problem.”

Why this is a good response

How many times do viewer/listener/reader complaints like Carlson’s go nowhere? There are a lot of reasons it happens. It takes a lot of effort to explore the complaints, contact the writer, sometimes even debate their points a bit. Some readers are flat out unreasonable and wrong. It would be tempting to tell the listener to comment on the website where NPR posted the story or comment on a Facebook page.

But Charles saw this as a way to get an agriculture story back in front of the public. The USDA says agriculture and ag-related industries contribute $775 billion to the American economy, about 5% of GDP. It is a worthy beat for which there could be a lot of interest if the public believes we are listening. When mainstream journalists report about agriculture, they are reporting about a topic that is related to about one in ten American jobs.

I wonder how often viewer/reader/listener complaints go unanswered because journalists are not secure enough to admit they may not know everything and that the public can be pretty darn smart. Charles’ follow-up story was not a correction or clarification. His first story was accurate. His follow-up story added complexity and detail, pointing out there is a difference between accuracy and truth. The difference is context.

Carlson told me that when journalists acknowledge the public’s concerns, it builds confidence. And then she said something that all journalists could learn from: “This is why I donate to and respect NPR so much. He listened.”

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With a road sign warning of an expected blizzard, morning commuters travel across the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge into downtown Boston., Monday, Jan. 26, 2015.   The Boston area is expected to get hit with about two feet of snow in the winter storm. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Here are 20 story ideas for covering the blizzard

Anybody who needs these ideas will be really busy for the next several days, so I am going to write sparsely to avoid taking up their time.

-Craigslist helps you find “Blizzard Boyfriends or Girlfriends?” You know this just seems like a bad idea, but it seems that people are going to CL to find winter warmth. Be careful clicking on the photos, some are NSFW. Who knows if this is a bunch of noise, a cover for escort services or if it really results in snowbound hookups? Color me skeptical, but it is getting some press.

-Is it REALLY true that you can expect a baby boom nine months after a blizzard? The answer is no. It seems so plausible, but the numbers just don’t bear it out. But another study that looks at hurricanes and birth rates seems to show that “low severity” storms may be related to “higher fertility rates” whereas severe storms do not. The most conceptions, this second study said, were from couples who already had at least one child.

-How to get your car unstuck in the snow. I found this delightful tutorial from KATU TV Portland, Oregon. Think CATS:

C: Clear a path. Give your tires some room to roll and get as much as you can from underneath the vehicle. It is especially important to clear the exhaust so the car doesn’t fill with backed up fumes. If you happen to be carrying antifreeze or wiper fluid, you can pour a little of that in the path of the tire. (not the most environmentally friendly solution.)

A: Add traction. If you are going to be driving in this stuff, carry kitty litter or sand and spread it in front and behind the tires. If you don’t have that, twigs, sticks and even (love this one) your car’s rubber floormats can be your traction. Remember to place the traction in the direction you want to go.

T: Tires. You can also get more traction if you deflate your tires a little.

S: Straighten your wheels. Rock the vehicle back and forth, do not gun it. Go lightly. If your tires get too hot you might just dig yourself deeper.

-Celebrate helpful neighbors. Last year when a winter storm hit Atlanta and people were stranded on interstates, one of the best stories to emerge was the remarkable number of really nice people who stepped up and helped others. Ask people to share stories of “snow angels” who pitched in to help others. You can map them, create a photo gallery, and continuing coverage can even invite callers or set up an answering machine for people to leave their stories. Stories of good work probably encourage more good work.

-Where does all of that road salt go? says:

It’s estimated that more than 22 million tons of salt are scattered on the roads of the U.S. annually—about 137 pounds of salt for every American.

But all that salt has to go somewhere. After it dissolves—and is split into sodium and chloride ions—it gets carried away via runoff and deposited into both surface water (streams, lakes and rivers) and the groundwater under our feet.

Obviously that isn’t good for the environment. So, the story says, “Elsewhere, municipalities are trying out alternate de-icing compounds. Over the past few years, beet juice, sugarcane molasses and cheese brine, among other substances, have been mixed in with salt to reduce the overall chloride load on the environment.”

-Don’t get so caught up in the emergency that you forget the beauty and fun side of snow.

-Why do people become irrational hoarders in weather emergencies? A consumer psychologist tries to explain. In short, it is herd mentality.

-Bird lovers serve an important function in the winter. Water and food can be difficult for birds to find in winter, especially in a heavy snowfall. Just remember that if you start feeding birds, you are saying “this is a place you can count on as a food source,” so if you stop when the weather turns tough, you could be really letting your feathered pals down when they need you most. See the best places to place feeders.

-How to take better photos in the snow. Your point-and-shoot camera may have a snow setting. See why. Low-light photography in the snow can be wonderful. 

-Tools to track social media reports of snow. Here is a site that collects social media posts. You can also try Hootsuite, which allows you to track social media posts by geolocation, or, which combs through social media posts to find the most interesting ones by topic. It is curated by humans, which holds down the junk factor. MiseryMap shows the tough travel conditions at airports around the country.

-AA meetings online. I got to thinking, what do people who depend on Alcoholic Anonymous or other such 12-step meetings do when the weather turns bad? I imagine it would be especially tough to be holed up in your house or apartment and have not much to do or not be able to make a meeting to get support help. It turns out, there are lots of AA meetings live online in both text and live chat formats. I would like to know if they work for the people who use them and whether your local meetings offer online support.

-Is it true that no two snowflakes are alike? PBS explains that snowflakes come in many shapes according to the temperature. By the way, the traditional snowflake shape you usually think of is called a dendrite, defined as “a crystal or crystalline mass with a branching, treelike structure.” But snow also comes in tubes, cylinders, columns and plates. 

-Weather through history. You can check claims about weather on any particular date back to 1945. Search by zip code, city, date and year.

-The blizzards through history. One of the worst East Coast storms was the storm of 1888, which actually occurred in March. This historic NOAA site also documents historic storms in the Midwest, the South and The Plains. These facts will be useful when you start hearing, “you think THAT is a storm. Let me tell you about a REAL storm.”

-A lesson on common sense. Years ago I was covering some big ice storm. Live coverage went on and on. We were sort of out of ideas. Somebody came up with the idea of “ask the viewers” in which people told us the problems they were having and we asked other viewers to call in with advice on how they fixed the same problem. I was at a house where a family had lost electricity and they worried about the food in the fridge that was in danger of spoiling. One old guy called in and said, “Now Mr. Tompkins, use your common sense. If the problem is the ice storm knocked out their power, why don’t they go gather up some of that ice and stick it in the fridge to keep things cold?” Brilliant, and I felt like an idiot. Works especially well for midday or morning shows where you have a ton of time.

-Broadcastify is a live emergency scanner online. Listen to thousands of emergency two-way radio traffic.

-Get 360-degree panoramic interactive photos. I like Google’s Photosphere and also Let me tell you about both. Google allows you to map the 360′s, which could be excellent for team coverage.

-Snow on the roof. How much is too much for your roof to handle? Popular Mechanics takes on the question. You could check your local building codes, but generally roofs should be built withstand to 30 pounds per square foot. The Hartford Courant said that it would take “four feet of fluffy snow, 2 feet of dense snow or about six inches of water, to weight that much. The trick is determining the weight per square foot of whatever combination of snow, ice, slush and water has piled onto your roof. If it’s more than 30 pounds, the roof could collapse.” Here is an insurance company website that explains ice dams and more ways to prevent snow buildup on roofs for people who are so inclined.

 -How to dress warmly. Here is specific advice from The Outdoor Gear Lab.
What do those warmth ratings mean for coats, boots and such? I often see warm weather gear advertised as being tested to 30 below or some such claim. I do not see what those ratings actually mean. Does anybody enforce the claims?

-What to do when you lose power in the winter. Some of the more important points to stress (from

  • Unplug some of your major appliances. When the power comes back on, all of those appliances can create a drain or power surge. This can harm sensitive equipment. To avoid a power surge when the electricity returns, turn off computers, TVs, stereos and other unnecessary electronic equipment at the power source. Leave a light on so you’ll know when the power is restored.
  • If you have a generator, do not connect it to your home’s power system unless it has been properly installed and disconnects you from the main power grid when it is operating. If you do not disconnect from the power grid, you can be sending electricity back down the lines; not just to your home. That could be deadly for power company workers.
  • If you have a regular wood stove or fireplace, you can use it for heat. However, DO NOT USE kerosene heaters, BBQs, or any outdoor type heater inside. Such devices create poisonous gases such as carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas given off by combustion and could kill.
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Resources for digging deeper and asking better questions on Ebola

Tuesday, President Obama mentioned Ebola in his State of the Union address saying, “the world needs to use this lesson to build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics.” The next morning, I led a Poynter/Association of Healthcare Journalists seminar to help journalists learn lessons from the Ebola response that we can use when the next epidemic/pandemic emerges. And there will be others.

Over the course of our two days together, we pulled together a list of reliable websites and resources that will help journalists dig deeper, ask better questions and report cautiously but precisely. Here are some of the sites we explored:

ClinicalTrials: This site tracks trials completed, in process and recruiting.

PubMed: There are 24 million citations for biomedical literature here.

MedPage Today: This is written for providers with lots of new news.

HealthMap: Mapping alerts around the globe. Some are official alerts, some media reports.

HealthNewsReview: This site watches media reports about healthcare issues. It’s a great source of story ideas.

Map a list: This site will turn any data table into an interactive map. No coding skills needed.

5 things that are bigger threats to your health than Ebola: From the American Public Health Association.

CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: This offers a look at what people are dying from.

Tiki-Toki: This is a free timeline building tool. It’s especially helpful to track epidemics and the spread of disease. Trends: Based on searches, Google estimates flu outbreaks by state and some cities.

CDC’s FastStats: What kills Americans, sorted to state levels.

We have built a robust Facebook site with tons of resources. (Only seminar participants may post to the site.)

We also explored what kinds of health crisis stories tend to be most scary to readers/listeners and viewers. This chart seemed to us to help journalists think through what stories would require the most caution and careful language.

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Dr. Michael Bell, left

Dr. Michael Bell, left

CDC’s Director of Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, Dr. Michael Bell, told journalists that his number one concern is the rising number of antibiotic resistant viruses. Bell said viruses mutate quickly and existing antibiotics increasingly are not effective. New antibiotics may be a decade away, he said, and even when they do come on the market, those drugs may only be useful for a couple of years. Bell said drug companies are not excited about developing new antibiotics because the useful life of the drugs is so short and doctors are constantly trying to minimize the use of those drugs.

Dr. Barbara Reynolds

Dr. Barbara Reynolds

“I am really REALLY worried about antibiotic resistant diseases,” said Dr. Barbara Reynolds, CDC’s crisis communications senior advisor. “The things that frighten me are the things that spread, that I cannot protect myself against and have to depend on other people acting responsibly.”

She said she is “disappointed” that people have chosen not to get inoculated against diseases for which vaccinations are highly effective. Reynolds said one reason so many Americans may be lax about getting vaccinations is “the diseases we are trying to protect against, our grandparents saw them and people today have not seen those diseases.” Reynolds told the journalists that what scientists call the “herd immunity” comes when most people are inoculated against a disease are not at risk yet. “We are not at a point in the US when we are going to have widespread diseases,” that could have been prevented by inoculations. But she added, “We are not immune to the possibility. Last year was the highest number of measles cases in decades, it is unfortunate.”

Previously: Covering Ebola: A Poynter Conversation

The readers’ quick guide for understanding a medical crisis

The workshop, funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, was the first of six McCormick Specialized Reporting Institutes planned for 2015. The workshop also produced a page of resources for reporters covering Ebola and infectious disease. Read more

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2015 may be the year journalists actually get to use drones

logoFAAThe Federal Aviation Administration got both friendly and tough with journalists who want to use drones to capture video.

The FAA signed an agreement to work with CNN in a test project to come up with ways that journalists can safely use drones. CNN’s official release included these two passages:

 “Our hope is that these efforts contribute to the development of a vibrant ecosystem where operators of various types and sizes can safely operate in the US airspace,” said CNN Senior Vice President David Vigilante.

“Unmanned aircraft offer news organizations significant opportunities,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We hope this agreement with CNN and the work we are doing with other news organizations and associations will help safely integrate unmanned newsgathering technology and operating procedures into the National Airspace System.”

Here are some questions, and issues, we still face.

Will 2015 be the year journalists fly?
2015 will almost certainly be the year that American journalists will get some Federal Aviation Administration guidance on how they can use drones to capture video and still photos. The FAA received more than 18,000 public comments on its website about how to regulate drones.

But if Congress gets involved, it could be years before journalists will have clear guidelines on how to use remote controlled aerial cameras called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). While the federal government moves slowly, 20 states have enacted their own laws regulating unmanned aircraft. Most of the UAS state laws enacted in 2014 speak to law enforcement’s use of drones.

The FAA’s website lists the guidelines that all drone operators must currently observe:


  • Do fly a model aircraft/UAS at the local model aircraft club
  • Do take lessons and learn to fly safely
  • Do contact the airport or control tower when flying within 5 miles of the airport
  • Do fly a model aircraft for personal enjoyment


  • Don’t fly near manned aircraft
  • Don’t fly beyond line of sight of the operator
  • Don’t fly an aircraft weighing more than 55 pounds unless it’s certified by an aeromodeling community-based organization
  • Don’t fly contrary to your aeromodeling community-based safety guidelines
  • Don’t fly model aircraft for payment or commercial purposes

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) and the Small UAV Coalition created a website that lays out the state of regulations for recreational users and for business users, like newsrooms.

In short, recreational hobby fliers can fly their aircraft up to 400 feet.

But businesses, such a newsrooms, must have specific permission from the FAA to fly a drone anywhere at any height. That is why CNN sought a specific permit from the FAA. The current rules PROHIBIT:

  • Professional real estate or wedding photography
  • Professional cinema photography for a film or television production
  • Providing contract services for mapping or land surveys

The exceptions are the handful of instances when the FAA issued a permit. The permit is called an FAA airworthiness certificate, called a “section 333″ permit. Except for the CNN deal, the FAA has not granted exceptions to journalists or journalism schools. The FAA has told at least two journalism schools to ground their drone fleet over public property.  The schools have scaled back their use of drones awaiting FAA permission, but still are making limited use of their aircraft.

Who has gotten exceptions?
An Associated Press story reported that soon, the FAA may respond:

The FAA is expected to propose restricting drones weighing less than 55 pounds to altitudes below 400 feet, forbid nighttime flights and require drones be kept within sight of their operators. 

The AP story said some inside the FAA are considering exemptions for very small drones, weighing less than five pounds, as Canada recently allowed.

Matthew Schroyer, Professional Society of Drone Journalists (, says he hoped the FAA would release proposed rules for small aircrafts in December. Now he says, he is not at all certain there will be rules drafted in January either. The PSDJ has about 400 members from 37 countries. 

The FAA has granted a handful of exemptions so far. In September, the government gave six film and commercial companies permission to fly drones under specific restrictive circumstances.  The “333 exemptions” require specific clearance from property owners, air traffic control and the individuals shown in the video. It can only apply to what is referred to as a “sterile set” which is a specific property zone. And the permits say the operator of the drone must have a commercial pilot’s license. Read that again. To fly an unmanned drone, the FAA is requiring the operator to be a licensed pilot. The permits also forbid night flight.

“For journalists this just doesn’t work,” Schroyer said.

In December, the FAA granted four specific exemptions to unmanned vehicle rules, including an exemption that allows oil companies to fly drones around oil rigs and another to allow drone use in monitoring construction sites.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International applauded the exemptions as a step forward but said, “The FAA needs to begin the rulemaking process and finalize a rule for the use of UAS as quickly as possible to allow UAS technology to realize its full potential and allow a wide range of industries to reap its benefits.”

FAA asks for police help to track down drones
Even while the FAA works with CNN, on the same day, the FAA sent a signal that it intends to strongly enforce its ban on widespread commercial use of drones. The FAA sent a letter to law enforcement urging local cops to help enforce federal laws banning commercial and reckless drone operations. The FAA is asking police to collect names of operators and urged police to photograph or record proof of drone use. The FAA says it needs police help because drones don’t have markings that clearly identify who owns the craft. The FAA wants police to be especially alert to drones flying near or in forbidden zones like near airports or federal land.

Would new rules require a pilot’s license?
The exemptions, limited as they are, Schroyer says, give a window into what the FAA might require of journalists. Schroyer says there is talk in Congress that would require drone operators who want “333 exemptions” to have an airplane pilot’s license just as the current exemptions do. Could it really be that in the future, all commercial drone pilots, or journalists who want to record video with a drone, you would have to get a pilot’s license? “That is what it looks like, that is what they have required so far and that is all we have to go off at this point. It is expensive, and it does not train an operator to safely use a drone,” Schroyer said.  

“These things are not harmless,” Schroyer says. They can fall from the sky, they can strike people if they are flown carelessly.  But he said, even if you could fly a plane, it does not qualify you to fly a radio controlled drone. “They are very different skills,” he said.

Schroyer says the United States lags behind many other countries in creating guidelines for drone use in journalism. Canada, he says, allows commercial users, such as a working journalist, to fly at heights up to 400 feet. They can fly in populated areas with permission, Schroyer says.

Australia, he says, allows operators to register for courses, learn how to fly, and you take what amounts to a driver’s course in front of a government official to show you can safely operate a drone. Then, the government grants a commercial operator’s license to drone pilots. Australia wants commercial drone users to have aviation knowledge if they are going to earn money from flying.

The UK requires permits for fliers and restricts where drones may be flown.

What are the repercussions of the ambiguity?

Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press Photojournalist

Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press Photojournalist

New FAA rules can’t come soon enough for Detroit Free Press photojournalist Eric Seals, who teaches with me at Poynter’s Backpack journalism seminar. Seals has been experimenting with drones for more than a year.  But for all of 2014, he has not been able to use his drone camera for professional purposes. In November of 2013, before the FAA issued new guidelines restricting journalists’ use, Seals used his $1200 quadcopter several times on assignments. He hoped to use the quadcopter to help tell the story of divers looking for shipwrecks in Lake Huron. A quadcopter would have saved thousands of dollars in helicopter costs to get the same shots.  “At least 16 or 20 times in 2014 I have said I wish I could use a quadcopter on this.

Seals said this assignment to cover a broken water pipe could have been accomplished with a drone for thousands of dollars less.

Seals said this assignment to cover a broken water pipe could have been accomplished with a drone for thousands of dollars less.

There was a water main break in Detroit that covered eight to ten blocks, freezing water and snow and the pipe broke and an entire neighborhood was soaked with water. The assignment desk asked me to get to the helicopter the paper uses… this would have been perfect for my quadcopter.” The cost of flying a helicopter was about the same cost as buying a quadcopter and camera, he said. “Plus I could get closer, I could have done it with less risk to everybody in the air and on the ground and I could have also been capturing the story with my cameras on the ground level, too.”

Schroyer says fighting the FAA can be expensive. “There are people who will not fly because of the ambiguity of the law. News organizations are not buying this equipment because they don’t know if they will be able to use it legally.”

The result, Schroyer says, is “news organizations are turning to amatuers, people recording video for fun, to capture the drone video they want to tell stories.” The PSDJ says allowing professional videographers to operate the aircraft would help insure safer use.

What about privacy concerns?
A recent Pew Research Center survey of hundreds of global leaders on the tech industry showed that many believe “living a public life online as the new default.” Privacy is a shifting and some said eroding notion. And, critics say, allowing drones to fly freely above us will erode privacy rights further.

Even before the FAA and Congress act on regulations that would allow the commercial use of drones, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, drafted legislation that would speak to concerns about drones invading privacy. Rockefeller explained the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Privacy Act of 2014:

“The proposed legislation would prohibit private companies from conducting surveillance on individuals without their explicit prior consent. In addition, the draft bill directs the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in consultation with the Department of Transportation (DOT), to promote rules and guidelines on UAS privacy policies, including the legal obligations of model UAS operators who purchase their UAS on the retail market. The bill would be enforced by the FTC and state Attorneys General.”

The legislation would also add a significant layer of regulations that journalists are not used to when it comes to collecting images and video. Rockefeller suggests the The Act, should:

Require civilian operators of UAS to establish a privacy policy to be posted on a public website hosted by the FTC. The policy would include, among other things, information about the circumstances under which the UAS would be operated, the specific purposes for which images, data and other identifying information would be collected, the measures to be taken to anonymize and aggregate such information unless prior express consent of the individual was obtained; and contact information for an individual to revoke their consent or to obtain copies of collected information.

And then there is a separate section of the Act that recommends a way for those who believe their privacy has been invaded by a drone to sue:

Provide a private right of action for persons who suffer physical harm or an invasion of privacy resulting from violation of this Act.

Schroyer said the Rockefeller proposal raises serious First Amendment concerns about how the government seeks to regulate what can be recorded from a public place. Among the issues, he says, is when an airspace above a private property turns from private property to public airspace. 

 What about the ethics of drone journalism?
“I am very surprised by how many journalists are using drones for journalism despite the FAA’s restrictions. I see it in local news broadcasts, too,” Seals says, but his paper’s lawyers say until the government issues new clearly written rules on what is allowable, he is keeping his copter grounded.

When Seals taught with me at Poynter, he stressed to our class that drone journalism carries a new layer of ethical responsibility for safety and sensitivity.

Seals says it takes “a good month, even two months” to get skilled at operating a drone. “You have to develop a mental checklist to check out the gear, make sure you are below 400 feet and not too close to an airport. You have to know about wind conditions. It is not a toy and people who got them at Christmas have to realize that. A lot of people who got them and started flying them without any practice find the aircraft flies away. If you do not calibrate the aircraft you can lose them in flight and never see them again.”

The Professional Society of Drone Journalists has adopted a code of ethics. The code says drone operators should live up to traditional journalism ethics codes, including the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. But there are additional ethics involved with drone photography:

  • Newsworthiness: The investigation must be of sufficient journalistic importance to risk using a potentially harmful aerial vehicle. Do not use a drone if the information can be gathered by other, safer means.
  • Safety: A drone operator must first be adequately trained in the operation of his or her equipment. The equipment itself must be in a condition suitable for safe and controlled flight. Additionally, the drone must not be flown in weather conditions that exceed the limits of the drone’s ability to operate safely, and it must be flown in a manner that ensures the safety of the public.
  • Sanctity of law and public spaces: A drone operator must abide by the regulations that apply to the airspace where the drone is operated whenever possible. An exception to this is provided in instances where journalists are unfairly blocked from using drones to provide critical information in accordance with their duties as members of the fourth estate. The drone must be operated in a manner which is least disruptive to the general population in a public setting.
  • Privacy: The drone must be operated in a fashion that does not needlessly compromise the privacy of non-public figures. If at all possible, record only images of activities in public spaces, and censor or redact images of private individuals in private spaces that occur beyond the scope of the investigation.
  • Traditional ethics: As outlined by professional codes of conduct for journalists.
  • Seals reminds journalists that while unmanned aircraft are great storytelling tools, they are not the only tool available to tell worthwhile stories. “I want very badly to be able to fly, but we are not out of business without quadcopters. Nothing is more important than a great subject.” Read more

    Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 1.55.46 PM

    A Colorado journalist was hospitalized with frostbite. Here’s how you can stay safe in the cold.

    With another cold blast coming through, here is a story and some tips for reporting those cold-weather stories.

    Colorado Springs journalist Eric Fink is hospitalized, suffering from frostbite on both hands.

    His friend, KRDO-TV weekend anchor Jonathan Petramala, captured this photograph of Fink in the emergency room.

    “Eric was working alone as an MMJ Saturday evening in a community called Falcon. It is a suburb of Colorado Springs, in the plains. The wind was whipping, maybe 25 miles per hour. The temperature was in the teens,” said Petramala.

    Fink was reporting on the approaching winter weather and was having trouble keeping a firewire connected to his backpack transmitter and had to pull off his gloves for 20 minutes to manipulate the controls on the unit, Petramala added.

    Eric Fink

    Eric Fink, KRDO-TV Colorado Springs

    “By the time he got back to the station he said his fingers were numb. I grew up in this area so I knew something about frostbite,” Petramala said. “We put his hands in warm, not hot water. That’s what you do. By the time we finished the 10 o’clock news, blisters had started to form on his hands. We went to the hospital. By the time we got there, the blisters were rising. It started to look like he had a second degree burn. That’s what frostbite injuries look like, a burn.”

    By 4 a.m., Petramala said, the injuries “looked like he had dunked his hands in a boiling pot of water.” Doctors sent Fink to a Denver hospital burn ward where specialists also treat frostbite injuries because the treatment is so similar. The long-term effect of Fink’s frostbite damage is still unknown.

    This story is worth special attention this week as bone-chilling cold weather sweeps across the nation.

    Here is first-aid advice for treatment of frostbite.

    I asked journalist friends who have spent time in the ice and snow for their advice for working in severe winter conditions. Here are some of their responses:

    Scott Libin, former news director, now Senior Fellow at University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication

    Scott Libin, former news director, now Senior Fellow at University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication

    Scott Libin: Former KSTP News Director Minneapolis (now teaches at University of Minnesota)

    When I got to KSTP as news director in 1998, I was a stickler for certain rules.  (No, not all of them grammatical.)  I insisted every live shot be established with a reporter in front of the camera 10 minutes before air — not 10 minutes before the shot was scheduled to hit; 10 minutes before the newscast began.

    It took me less than one Minnesota winter to learn that things don’t work the same way in this kind of cold.  Cables go rigid, masts stick and faces freeze — literally.  People can’t speak normally after only a few minutes outside.  It was easy for me to sit in climate-controlled comfort and insist that all remote signals, audio and lighting be checked before the open rolled, but if the reporter was visibly suffering and couldn’t form intelligible speech, all that technical excellence went to waste.

    I wish all managers and producers would take weather conditions, whether sub-zero cold or summertime lightning, as seriously as they take, say, crowd control.  I think we’ve all learned the hard way that some settings require extra hands in the field for safety’s sake.  I think weather is one such circumstance.  A one-person, unassisted live shot is tough enough under ideal conditions.  It may well be unreasonable to ask in the paralyzing cold.

    The best way to educate inside staffers is still to send them outside.

    Dave Wertheimer, KING TV

    Dave Wertheimer-KING TV

    Dave Wertheimer: KING 5 Photojournalist/Editor
    (formerly worked in Minneapolis TV)

    Expect the unexpected. I have a news car full of extra, well, everything.

    I have granola bars, at least a dozen water bottles and cans or ready-to-eat stuff that be stored in a variable temperatures.

    Clothing. Layers. I carry at least 3 jackets (various) for rain and snow. Lots of spare gloves and winter head gear. I also carry an overnight bag with a couple of days worth of clothes and toiletries.

    Shoes, at least 3 pair, winter boots, rubber farm boots, and one other pair of works shoes.

    For the reporter, I carry hair spray.

    I always carry in my back pocket a white wash cloth for wiping the lens and for white balancing. I keep one of these in each jacket pocket also.

    For the gear, nothing beats garbage bags for protection. Just poke a hole for the lens and viewfinder, and use a ziplock and rubber band to keep water out of the viewfinder. I also have zip locks for LED lights and wireless mic transmitters. When working in really harsh conditions to keep my stick mic safe I wrap it in an unlubricated condom. (Note from Al, he is serious about this. It is an old photographer trick that comes in especially handy covering hurricanes.) 

    Pat Slattery: Chief Photographer, Vanderbilt News & Communications

    I kept my batteries in a small cooler in the trunk, it keeps out the cold in the winter the same way it keeps out the heat in the summer. I wore glove liners under fingerless gloves, which keeps you toasty but still gives you the tactile sense for small switches and connectors.

    Holly Page: CEO, Wave One Group

    While my TV news days are behind me, I remember being shoved out the door by overly aggressive producers + assignment editors in Salt Lake City to cover cold-weather related stories. Here’s what I wished I knew then, and what has worked for me now:

    • Wool socks, wool scarf, wool hat. There’s a theme here!
    • Avoid wearing anything made of cotton because cotton holds moisture like a sponge.
    • Make sure you can be seen at night. Wear reflective gear.

    I know it’s futile to change the minds of producers who are hell-bent on airing a “cold weather story”, so you’ve got to take care of yourself.

    Mike Borland: WHO TV Des Moines chief photojournalist

    We expand the rule usually applied to doing live shots in storms. If the crew in the field feel they are in danger they can call off a shot. In general we don’t do live shots when temps are below 0º. Spot news is different. Sometimes an extra person on the shot can make all the difference so one can shoot while the other gets warm.

    Getting the story shot when it’s not live sometimes means shooting a little, getting warm, shooting a little more and repeating that cycle until the job is done. The camera stays cold, I don’t bring it in the car as long as it’s working. If it stays cold it won’t fog up. I have a charger in my car so I always have a fresh battery. Same goes with a live truck.

    Christopher Shadrock: KVUE Austin (formerly from Vermont) told me that when he is producing, he buys hand and foot warmers for his crews and sends the expense reports to accounting. We love producers who think like that! He added:

    The last ice storm we had, we were on air for 5 straight hours. After our live hits we went back inside the live truck. Thanks to my rain gear and an umbrella I was able to leave my camera on and give the folks back in the booth a live look when ever they wanted. Later in the morning when it got brighter I would switch to the mast cam 30′ up in the air for a different look.

    The one thing I learned that morning was that your mast can freeze 30′ up in the air. Luckily we were in front of a business that gave me a few pots of warm water to melt the ice and get us back on the road.

    Anna Devencenty: photojournalist KCBS/KCAL (formerly from Colorado):

    Keep the car colder than you would. Don’t blast the heat the whole trip because the extremes of getting in and out will take a toll on you. It also helps the equipment not to fog up. Keep the car somewhat comfortable but not hot or even too warm if you’re a crew needing to jump in and out. It also helps you acclimate.

    Joe Nelson: CTN Reporter Producer (reports in Minnesota and Wisconsin)

    Stay inside your vehicle and keep it running as long as possible. Set up the live shot and do the mic check when you get there, then go back in the car until a couple minutes before you’re on. Have at least two extra batteries and keep them warm in your gloves (if they’re small enough) and ready to replace the one in the camera.

    Todd Walker: formerly of KTUU and KTVA in Anchorage:

    I grew up in Alaska and worked my first few news jobs there. Reporters, MMJ’s, photogs, anyone in the field needs to recognize what their body is telling them. Cold, numb, so cold it’s burning, suddenly feeling not so cold anymore and kind of warm, it all means different things and are warning signs from your body that something is wrong and you need to do something about it. Toughing it out will only get you hurt, and possibly permanently.

    Brett Akagi: Media Director and Content Strategist at The University of Kansas  (Formerly KARE-11 photojournalist Minneapolis) sent some photos of his “must have gear.”


    The only time I suffered frostbite was in Kansas City of all places. I shot a car ax in the elements for an hour without a stocking cap. The temp was in the mid-20′s with a stiff breeze. Two hours later my ears were bright red and hurt. This only happened once, because I learned from this mistake. When I moved to Minneapolis and started working at KARE-TV a few years later, I got good advice on shooting in the cold. “Try to buy the best gear possible to keep warm.”

    I used to keep my batteries warm in Minnesota by heating up a microwavable neck wrap, placing it in a small cooler, covering it with a towel and placing my batteries in the cooler.

    Stephanie Johnson, MMJ working at ABC 57 News in South Bend, IN

    Stephanie Johnson, MMJ working at ABC 57 News in South Bend, Indiana


    Stephanie Johnson: ABC 57 South Bend, gives some advice about disconnecting camera cables in cold weather

    I don’t disconnect the cords until I get back to the station. That way my hands are not exposed and I don’t risk breaking the cables.


    Scott Jensen, Chief Photographer KING-TV Seattle, formerly worked in Anchorage

    Scott Jensen, Chief Photographer KING-TV Seattle, formerly worked in Anchorage

    Finally I turned to my old friend Scott Jensen. Today he is the chief photographer for KING 5 in Seattle, but he has worked in Alaska and covered the Iditarod in the Arctic.

    If you are going to work in a blizzard or winter weather they make a polar cover, which is kind of like a down coat for your camera. But a camera generates a little heat and a canvas cover was enough when I worked in Alaska. If it is snowing, you need a rain cover at least. Keep your batteries close to your body to keep them warm.  I have heard of people keeping hot packs around their controls if they have camera with mechanical parts, but I have never done that.  I have had brand new nine-volt batteries in my wireless mic fail in extreme cold.

    Remember your hands will freeze fast if your bare hands touch a metal tripod.

    You should also keep your drinking water close to you in a pocket. Put it outside and it freezes fast.  My parka is like a sleeping bag that you wear.  I have snow pants in two different weights. I wear my wind protection underneath my parka. Undergarments should be the “wicking” kind. I wear a polypropylene fiber skull cap and sometimes I wear a heavier wool hat over that. I wear a balaclava to keep my neck warm.

    Remember, you are in charge of your OWN safety. Don’t do anything dumb.

    And a personal note to anchors: As a reporter who has spent more than a few days standing in the cold on a live shot, there is almost nothing more annoying than hearing a toasty warm anchor tell me live on the air “thanks for that report, stay safe and warm out there.”  Just don’t. Read more


    Lessons learned: TV-newspaper partner on investigative project

    Dallas TV station KXAS (NBC5) and the Dallas Morning News teamed up to investigate complaints of harassment by hundreds of soldiers at the Army’s Warrior Transition Units (WTU’s) that were designed to help the injured heal. In the process of documenting the poor treatment of Army veterans these separate media outlets learned about how to work together.


    The story 
    The project, called “Injured Heroes, Broken Promises,” took more than six months of work, relied on hundreds of pages of government records and interviews with dozens of injured veterans who said they had been “ridiculed, harassed and threatened by the commanders of Army units created to help injured soldiers heal.

    Three of the nation’s 25 WTU’s’s are in Texas. The units are supposed to manage the care and treatment of wounded, ill or injured soldiers, whether they are physically or mentally injured, or both. 64,000 soldiers have used the treatment programs since 2007. “Hundreds of America’s active duty soldiers have complained about harassment, verbal abuse and mistreatment at the Army’s Warrior Transition Units that were designed to help the injured heal,” according to the investigation.

    The team examined five years of complaints involving soldiers from three Texas Warrior Transition Units at Fort Hood, Fort Bliss and Fort Sam Houston. The story produced a hefty 210 inch 5600-word display in the newspaper, two interactive web displays and a nearly 10-minute local TV story on a Sunday night newscast followed by a nearly seven minute piece on Monday.

    One of the key interviews in the project was with Sgt. Zach Filip, an Army combat medic who served in Afghanistan. He returned to the States suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder only to be re-traumatized by the 2009 shooting that killed 13 people at Ft. Hood. Filip saved the life of a police officer in that incident and The Army Times named him the 2010 Soldier of the Year. Filip said the WTU he was assigned made his problems “a lot worse, physically and mentally.”

     KXAS’s Website
    The Dallas Morning News website

    Key lessons of a partnership
    The team also valuable lessons about how to work across platforms and even across ownerships to produce the investigation. Among the lessons they say they learned:

    Share everything. If you are going to be partners, you have to commit to the idea and hold nothing back.

    Negotiate the release. Newspapers and TV stations have different cycles and a Sunday release might not be what a TV station would choose but it is perfect for newspapers. There’s also the online release, this team broke the first round of stories online, a day before the material appeared in print or on the air.

    Visit each other’s newsrooms. Get to know the cultures your partner lives in. It is also a show of respect when you “go to them” as much as “they come to you.”

    Share bylines. The contributors show up on all platforms. It honors each other’s contributions. It might sound small but it isn’t.

    Stay open.  Both the newspaper and TV journalists in this project said their partners made useful suggestions about content and style that each adapted. The partners said the other media’s “fresh set of eyes” made the stories sharper.

    It’s a lot more work. This is one consistent phrase I have seen over the years with the many combined projects has examined — partnerships require more work than going it alone. Partnerships require roughly twice the communication, scheduling headaches and you negotiate everything that you normally would not have to from the title of the project to when to roll it out and how. But, as you will read below, the partners say the additional work is not only worth it, it has been key to reaching audiences, landing interviews and maybe getting results. So much so, the partners are already planning the next project.

    Choosing the journalists
    Both KXAS and The Dallas Morning News said “who” does the job is nearly as important and “what” they will be investigating.  The journalists had to be able to share information and credit. They had to be willing to allow their partner to publish first and they had to be willing to allow others to critique, edit and suggest ways to improve stories. It is not for everybody.

    I talked with team members of the team by phone and email.

    Scott Friedman-KDFW

    Scott Friedman-KXAS

    KXAS/NBC5 investigative reporter Scott Friedman and investigative producer Eva Parks have covered other stories about the treatment of veterans. Friedman has been honored for his aggressive use of public records to prove his stories. Parks and Friedman met some of the first sources for this story during their reporting of the aftermath of a 2009 shooting at Ft. Hood. They filed their first open records requests for this project more than a year ago.

    The Dallas Morning News provided Dave Tarrant, an experienced narrative storyteller who has written extensively on soldiers returning from war.

    Tom Huang-Dallas Morning News Sunday and Enterprise Editor

    Tom Huang

    Tom Huang, the DMN Sunday and Enterprise Editor said, “Dave was the lead writer on the newspaper stories, but Scott and Eva’s reporting was so integral to the stories that we knew we wanted to give them bylines – there was never a question in my mind. They also had a lot of feedback for Dave when he showed them early drafts. He did quite a bit of rewriting of the second day’s main story based on some ideas Scott had.”

    Why form a partnership with another media outlet?
    Parks:  “We knew that we wanted to do a partnership investigation when the partnership formed a year ago.  We had filed a Freedom of Information request with the Army June 2013.  When we finally got word this summer that we were getting closer to receiving the records we thought this would be the perfect joint project for us to present to the Morning News.  We weren’t exactly sure what type of records we’d get but we knew it would be voluminous and when they assigned Dave Tarrant we were excited because of his strong military background that he’d add an extra layer of reporting.”

    “Doing a story like this with a print partner brings your story to a whole new audience.  It was exciting to start receiving feedback before the report aired because of the buzz created by releasing Dave’s version in the Sunday paper. The print version also goes into more depth that a TV report could never do.”

    Tarrant: “To begin with, collaboration is a major value in itself. Instead of just sharing each other’s finished products, we had a chance to work together, share insights, develop reporting strategies and discuss storytelling techniques. That kind of collaboration leads to creative ideas and new ways of thinking about stories. In no small way, a partnership like this can begin to change the culture at the institutional level. In a digital world, that kind of fundamental change, if done right, is a very good thing. At the team level, Scott and Eva are battle-hardened investigative reporters, very organized and able to focus like a laser beam on the key issues. I learned a lot working with them, and I tried to bring my experience in reporting and writing narratives to look for ways to tell the story through central characters.”

    Friedman: “Our investigative team had already filed a FOIA request asking for the Army documents – and we had talked with several families who had concerns about treatment they received in these units – prior to us approaching the DMN with the idea.  But they were on board before we shot any interviews and before we received the FOIA records.  So Dave was involved in conducting all of the interviews and examining the records with us.”

    Eva Parks, Dave Tarrant, Scott Friedman (Left to -Right). Each document represents a complaint filed by a solider about treatment at an Army Warrior Transition Unit.

    The Logistics 
    Huang: “Injured Heroes, Broken Promises” was our first major investigative project that we collaborated on. We worked as a true team from the beginning, sharing ideas, going to planning meetings, mapping out what the print, digital and broadcast stories would cover. Dave, Scott and Eva did all their reporting together, sharing all their notes and documents. I shared drafts of Dave’s stories with Executive Producer Shannon Hammel, Scott and Eva; and Shannon shared Scott’s scripts with Dave and me. Our lawyer and their lawyer read all of DMN’s stories and NBC5’s scripts ahead of time.  We even had a session where we all got together to brainstorm the name of the series, “Injured Heroes, Broken Promises,” and the hashtag #InjuredHeroes for Twitter.  Dave and I went to planning meetings in NBC5’s newsroom several times over the past few months, and Executive Producer Shannon Hammel visited the DMN’s newsroom pretty much on a daily basis. Having that face-to-face time was really important and helped us feel comfortable in working with one another.”

    Friedman:  “We agreed in the beginning that everyone would share equal credit.  Dave would have producer credit on our TV story – and we would be part of the paper’s reporting team.  We spent a lot of time with Dave throughout the project talking about the major findings and discussing narrative for both the TV and the print stories.  As we wrote print and TV copy we shared it with each other and offered suggestions and tweaked each other’s work.  The biggest challenge was understanding parts of each other’s internal timelines and processes.  We held weekly or bi-weekly meetings along the way.”

    Joint interviews and shared information
    Friedman: “The one major agreement we had from the beginning was that Dave and I would try to conduct every interview together.  In most cases the two of us would meet for a phone call with the interview subject before we shot the TV interview.  This helped us get more of the details and color we would need for the newspaper story – and helped us prepare for the TV interview.  Dave attended all the TV interviews either in person or on speaker phone so he could listen and ask questions.”

    Tarrant: “We did nearly all the interviews together, going over what questions to ask.  When Scott was filming an interview, I would sit on the side taking notes and wait until he was finished. In some cases, I conducted interviews beforehand, while the KXAS photojournalist, Peter Hull, was setting up equipment. In other cases, I would wait until Scott was done and ask follow-up questions. In a few cases, I called back later to get more details. In a few ancillary cases, we did interviews separately but shared transcripts.”

    Huang: “Because Dave is a narrative writer, he also had to spend time hanging out with the soldiers and observing their daily lives, and he did most of that by himself. Vernon Bryant, DMN’s photojournalist, would often visit the soldiers days later, because we didn’t want to have both our photographer and NBC5’s photographer be there at the same time.”

    Timing is key and negotiated
    The investigation rolled out in waves.

    The Dallas Morning News’ website published first, on Saturday. Then the newspaper published on Sunday followed by the in-depth TV story Sunday night following a highly-viewed Dallas Cowboys game on KXAS. Keep in mind, television stations across America are in the midst of the important Nielsen November “sweeps” period” that lasts until November 26th.

    The website didn’t include video, at first but did include detailed stories, photos and documents to support the story.

    Huang: “We typically post those interactives online on the Friday or Saturday before Sunday’s print publication. Friday is ideal because we capture more online readers then. In this case, we negotiated with NBC5, and they were OK with us posting our online interactive late Saturday afternoon.”

    The folks added NBC5’s video story and cross-linked to their online package after they aired their story Sunday night.

    Friedman:  “The two organizations wanted to put the story in front of as many potential eyes as possible. So the combination of a Sunday edition of the DMN – and big Sunday night audience following a Dallas Cowboys game seemed to provide the best.  DMN launched Saturday night – releasing the online interactive story and then publishing part one of the series in the early edition of the Sunday morning paper. We aired a preview piece on Saturday night. The full DMN story hit the paper on Sunday morning and we followed with part one of the TV series on Sunday night.”

     Measuring success
    Huang: “We’re hoping our stories will get the attention of lawmakers and policy folks who focus on how soldiers are cared for when they return home from war. It will be meaningful if some change happens for the better, and if the Army seeks to improve these Warrior Transition Units. Of course, it would be nice to get good newspaper sales, online page views and broadcast ratings. But I think the project has already been a success, because this was the first time that DMN and NBC5 partnered on a major investigative project, and we were able to make it work really well. NBC5′s Executive Producer Shannon Hammel and I are already talking about what we’d like to do next.”

    Parks: “For us, doing a report like this is all about making a difference and shedding light on how the Army cares for injured soldiers.  The people we talked to were brave to share their story with us and we hope the report will lead to some positive changes so that other soldiers may not have to go through that type of experience again.”

    Tarrant:  “It’s been seven years since The Washington Post broke the stories that have come to be known as the “Walter Reed scandal.” Since then, we haven’t heard much about the program that was set up in the wake of that scandal. We’re hoping that our stories draw attention to the fact that there are still problems with how the Army cares for its wounded and ill soldiers when they return home from war. We hope the stories will help lead to changes that will improve this vital program.”

    The team said that it is still awaiting more than 6,000 additional pages of documents from the federal government and that already it is following up on additional leads from veterans and families who have stories to tell.

    “We have heard from the families we covered,” KXAS’ Eva Parks said. “They said they were pleased with the coverage and they thanked us for listening.” Read more

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    TV Station takes heat for exposing criminal

    KXLY TV in Spokane, Washington is taking heat from some viewers for exposing supposed do-gooder as a criminal.

    Sunday afternoon, a man called the KXLY newsroom with an offer. “The caller told our weekend anchor Aaron Luna that he wanted to help Spokane’s homeless population so he was going to hand out thousands of dollars in the next few weeks and that we could come along,” said News Director Jerry Post. “After he called, he sent emails with several videos showing himself handing out cash.”

    Monday, Luna took a ride with the man who said he didn’t want to be identified and KXLY got video of the “donor” handing out twenty dollar bills to homeless people.

    But staff at the TV station was suspicious. “This guy said he wanted to be anonymous but still he wanted attention,” Post said.

    “I am skeptical of everyone,” said Melissa Luck, the station’s Executive Producer. “I had an uneasy feeling about this, but he was handing out money, he was doing it in full view of the public in public places, we felt like we had to report this was going on.”

    The station had covered other stories about Spokane charities who warned against handing out cash to panhandlers. Post included voices from those charities saying it was a bad idea for their nameless benefactor to be handing out wads of cash. The station’s promotions included that same skeptical cautious tone, including the charities warnings.

    Then the story got even more sketchy.

    Reporter Aaron Luna reported that the man handing out the money wanted the station to give out his Twitter address and if people sent in photos of themselves handing out money as he did, he would pass along secret clues to those followers about where they could find an even larger wad of cash that he would plant somewhere in downtown Spokane. 

    Luna said the station decided not to include the Twitter address because they did not want to pass along anything that implied KXLY was endorsing the guy.

    Here is the first story:

    Viewers were not happy. They took to social media to criticize the station for being so skeptical. But the real firestorm was yet to come.

    “On Tuesday, I found time to start looking through the raw video that Aaron shot,” Luck said. “We knew this man’s name from the email he sent us on Sunday. I started pecking around on law enforcement websites, in Washington State and then Idaho.” She was startled to find there was not one criminal booking photo of the man they rode with the day before, there were six. (See the gallery here.) 

    Edward Carmine Jarzabek

    Edward Carmine Jarzabek

    “He’s been convicted several times of writing bad checks from accounts he knew were closed, as a way to get cash from banks,” Luck reported Wednesday. “Each time he was released from prison, court records show he began operating a similar scheme. According to the Idaho Department of Corrections, he was released to supervision in July and allowed to live in Washington.”

    So the man who was passing out all of that cash owed more than $10,000 to Idaho courts and was on parole. Despite his claims that he was loaded with money, he had filed bankruptcy and owed tens of thousands of dollars to creditors. Idaho prosecutors said Jarzabek had written $100,000 in bad checks, was a chronic liar and would say whatever he needed to say to get what he wanted.

    The station went back to Jarzabek to confront him about his prison record and he admitted it was all true. He had been in a lot of trouble but he said he was turning his life around and wanted to help others. He could not say exactly where all of that money came from though. KXLY didn’t go for the sensational “chase the bad guy down the street while shouting at him” interview. They sat down in an office and gave him a chance to tell his story.


    KXLY was surprised to find that people were upset with their reporting. People posted angry messages on the station’s website supporting Jarzabek’s “charity.”

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    KXLY responded to critics on Facebook by presenting factual responses.

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    Jarzabek jumped on Facebook to say KXLY broke its promise to him that he would not be named in their story.  The station said they did keep their word on the first story, but when the criminal history emerged, Post said the station felt it had an obligation to identify him and Jarzabek agreed to the on-camera interview. After the second story aired Jarzabek wrote on KXLY’s Facebook page:

    Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 6.35.28 PM

    It would be fair to criticize KXLY for not discovering Jarzabek’s criminal background before airing the first story.  But the reporting was appropriately skeptical and fair. The followup was thorough and accurate and the station’s social media response was a model for what a station should do when some of the public turns on it.

    “We found there are three camps that came up around this story,” Post told me. “There are those who see us as big bad media trying to destroy this man, there are people who accept that he is a criminal but think it is OK for him to give money away even if we don’t know where the money came from and there are people who see him for who he is.” Read more

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    What journalists covering Ferguson need to know about grand juries

    A high school graduation photo of Michael Brown rests on top of a snow-covered memorial Monday, Nov. 17, 2014, more than three months after the black teen was shot and killed nearby by a white policeman in Ferguson, Mo. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Monday as a grand jury deliberates on whether to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robert Cohen)

    A high school graduation photo of Michael Brown rests on top of a snow-covered memorial Monday, Nov. 17, 2014, more than three months after the black teen was shot and killed nearby by a white policeman in Ferguson, Mo. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Monday as a grand jury deliberates on whether to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robert Cohen)

    While we await word from the St. Louis County, Missouri grand jury investigating the shooting death of Michael Brown, this would be a good time to remind the public how the grand jury system works, what grand juries are and what they are not.

    • Grand juries are usually not sequestered.
    • Grand jurors don’t have to swear they have no opinions about whatever they are investigating.
    • Defense lawyers and judges are not allowed in the grand jury room.
    • It is more difficult for a person being investigated to challenge or “strike” a grand juror from hearing a case.
    • Grand juries may take direction from a prosecutor or go out on their own to seek information and testimony.
    • Grand juries generally produce three kinds of reports:
      • a true bill, which is an indictment, which means the person goes to a trial hearing
      • a no true bill, which means the panel didn’t find enough evidence to move the case forward for prosecution
      • the grand juries sometimes write reports about what they have investigated, for instance, systematic problems in the justice system.
    • Hearsay evidence is allowed in grand jury testimony, unlike in open court.
    • Grand juries do not have to be in total agreement to return an indictment in a case.
    • Grand juries issue indictments based on whether there is probable cause to believe a person is guilty of a crime. That is a much lower level of proof than is required for a conviction.

    Why do we have grand juries?
    The notion of a citizen’s investigative panel has roots hundreds of years deep, stretching back to Old English law. The original idea was to have some way to keep the monarchy from being able to prosecute enemies for no good reason.

    Grand juries are mentioned in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

    “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

    “Historically grand juries have been both a shield and a sword. They are a shield against politically driven prosecution and they are a sword when a prosecutor sticks his head in the sand and refuses to take on a case, like organized crime cases for example,” said Penny White, University of Tennessee law professor and former state Supreme Court Justice.

    One of the early examples of how we use grand juries came in the case of John Peter Zenger in 1734. Zenger was a newspaper printer and the paper he printed was deeply critical of the Governor of New York.  The governor wanted to shut the paper down. Two grand juries refused to indict Zenger for sedition. The grand jury system acted as a shield protecting a free press from an angry governor.

    Penny White,  Director of the Center for Advocacy and Elvin E. Overton Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee, former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice

    Penny White

    Grand juries are, largely, investigative panels. Jurors are selected from the same pool of citizens as petit juries, but their duties and terms are very different. In most places, grand juries can meet for up to six months, but they do not usually meet every day, as juries do in criminal or civil trials.  

    Unlike juries who hear cases in open court, grand juror names are kept secret. St. Louis County court officials did say the panelists include a black man, two black women, six white men and three white women.

    Missouri Law for grand juries
    In Missouri, the state law lays out some specific duties for grand juries:

    Mo. Rev. Statutes Chapter 540.

    540.031. A grand jury may make inquiry into and return indictments for all grades of crimes and shall make inquiry into all possible violations of the criminal laws as the court may direct. The grand jury may examine public buildings and report on their conditions.

    Missouri’s law allows for there to be a court reporter in the grand jury room.

    Reporter to record testimony–oath.

    540.105. An official reporter of the circuit court, when directed by the judge thereof, shall take down and transcribe for the use of the prosecuting or circuit attorney any or all evidence given before the grand jury. Before taking down any such evidence, however, such reporter shall be sworn by the foreperson of such grand jury not to divulge any of the proceedings or testimony before the grand jury or the names of any witnesses except to the prosecuting or circuit attorney or to any attorney lawfully assisting him in the prosecution of an indictment brought by such grand jury.

    And Missouri law makes it clear that what is said in the grand jury room is supposed to stay there:

    Grand juror not to disclose evidence–penalty.

    540.320. No grand juror shall disclose any evidence given before the grand jury, nor the name of any witness who appeared before them, except when lawfully required to testify as a witness in relation thereto; nor shall he disclose the fact of any indictment having been found against any person for a felony, not in actual confinement, until the defendant shall have been arrested thereon. Any juror violating the provisions of this section shall be deemed guilty of a class A misdemeanor.

    And, Professor White tells me that the Missouri law includes one unusual provision. Grand jurors can be required to testify in a trial:

    Grand jurors required to testify, when.

    540.300. Members of the grand jury may be required by any court to testify whether the testimony of a witness examined before such jury is consistent with or different from the evidence given by such witness before such court. They may also be required to disclose the testimony given before them by any person, upon a complaint against such person for perjury, or upon his trial for such offense.

    How grand juries are different from petit juries
    Grand juries do not decide guilt or innocence. They listen to evidence and decide if somebody should be charged with a crime. Grand jurors can ask questions. “It is rare for a prosecutor to seek an indictment from a grand jury and not get one,” White said.

    Grand jurors do not have to claim to be unbiased and defense lawyers do not have the ability to “strike” grand jurors from serving. The Cornell Legal Information Institute explains:

    When a defendant makes a peremptory challenge, the judge must remove the juror without making any proof, but in the case of a grand juror challenge, the challenger must establish the cause of the challenge by meeting the same burden of proof as the establishment of any other fact would require.

    Grand jury sessions are far less formal than open court sessions partly because there is no judge inside the grand jury room. The prosecutor for that jurisdiction is usually present and guides the grand jury through the law and the gathering of evidence. Still, grand juries can hear whomever they want and ask lots of questions.

    Chris Hoyer, former federal and state prosecutor in Tampa, Florida. 40 years of experience practicing law.

    Chris Hoyer

    Chris Hoyer, who was a federal prosecutor for 10 years and state prosecutor in Tampa, Florida, for eight years says grand jury rooms feel a lot like a classroom. “There are lots of questions, a lot of conversation, lots of participation,” he said. Often, he says, an investigator from the prosecutor’s office will come to the grand jury with a thick file of evidence. “The case agent summarizes what police have found, what witnesses said and what tests have been done.” In open court, each person who did that work would have to personally testify as to what they discovered but in a grand jury hearsay evidence is allowed.

    Grand Jury versus Preliminary Hearing
    All 50 states allow grand juries but often court systems use preliminary hearings instead. Preliminary hearings are held in open court and defense lawyers can cross examine witnesses. “The trend toward preliminary hearings is largely driven by the perception that it saves money,” according to White. “Many defendants waive preliminary hearings and go straight to trail, so in that way, it saves money not to go through a grand jury process.” 

    The advantage of a grand jury hearing is that the closed nature of the hearing protects the reputation of the person being investigated in case there is not enough evidence for a case to go forward.

    On the other hand, defense attorneys often like preliminary hearings. White explained: “From a defense point of view that is the only time you will get a state’s case in advance of trial.”

    Hoyer agreed, “As a defense attorney I would much rather have a preliminary hearing because you could discredit or intimidate a witness who might harm your client. But from a prosecutor’s point of view, a grand jury is better because some witnesses, especially informants, may not want to testify in public. They would not be willing to say what they know and be forthcoming like they would in a grand jury setting.”

    The Burden of Proof
    In criminal cases, grand jurors have to answer two key questions when they consider a case. (1) Is there probable cause to believe a crime was committed? (2) Is there some evidence to show that the accused person was involved in the crime?

    For the grand jury to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, at least nine of the 12 jurors will have to say that it’s reasonable to believe he could be found guilty of crimes that could range from second degree murder to criminally negligent manslaughter. (The LA Times explains the range of possible charges in this story.) Remember that to convict a person of a crime, the burden of proof is much higher. An indictment requires establishing “probable cause,” a conviction requires the evidence to be proven true beyond a “reasonable doubt.”

    The grand jurors vote in private, with no prosecutor present.

    An Unusual Grand Jury Session
    The St. Louis County grand jury session is highly unusual because Wilson himself testified without a lawyer present. It is rare for the main suspect in a case to appear before a grand jury.

    “Most defense lawyers would not put their client through that,” White said. After a grand jury testimony, “They can’t shift their theory of defense.” And while the defendant cannot have a lawyer by his or her side, the defendant is allowed to come out after every question.

    Hoyer said in some jurisdictions, if the target of a grand jury testifies, they can be given “targeted immunity” meaning what they say to the grand jury cannot be used against them in court.

    St. Louis County prosecutor  Robert McCulloch said his office would hand over “absolutely everything” it had collected as evidence in the case so jurors could hear from eyewitnesses, forensic experts and police investigators who all appeared to have starkly different versions of what happened. The prosecutor’s office said it presented the grand jury with DNA information, ballistics information and heard from Dorian Johnson, the friend who was with Michael Brown at the shooting.

    The Washington Post pointed out another unusual tactic in this grand jury investigation; the prosecutors say they are not telling jurors what charges they think Wilson should face, but instead are leaving the decision on whether to indict or not totally up to the panel.

    “If you want to have a tough decision made for you, you take a case (like the Ferguson, Missouri case) to a grand jury rather than just bringing charges,” Hoyer said. “It is especially true in cases where you don’t know who to believe, where there is a high-stakes decision.”

    What Happens After the Grand Jury Reports?
    While grand jury testimony is usually secret, the prosecutor’s office has said if there is no indictment in the case, it will ask the court to allow the release of witness testimony without the witness’ names so the public can know as much as possible about what the grand jury heard. And the prosecutor’s spokesman said if the grand jury does not indict the officer, the county will not pursue charges on its own or seat a second grand jury unless significant new evidence came to light. Read more

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