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Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds How did you come up with the story idea? When did you know that there was a story in this? So story ideas come from all sorts of different places. You can get a story idea from reading your own newspaper or talking to people all sort of things. So this particular idea came from a health and science reporter who had done some explanatory reporting on kids with really rare disorders. And so a doctor had contacted him and said that there was another child with a very rare disorder who almost died. And they had to do all these crazy things to try to save the kid’s life.

Skip to 0 minutes and 47 seconds But what was interesting was they had to do all these things to save his life, because his newborn screening test had been late. And so then one of things you want to think about in journalism is scope, right? So if something happens to one person, it’s an interesting story. But you’re always trying to think, how big of a story could this be? How can we increase the scope of this? So then you were thinking about scope and you realised that this is a bigger story than one baby? Well, so the editors asked me if I could figure out how big of a problem this is.

Skip to 1 minute and 27 seconds And another thing that we had noticed was when we looked at newborn screening websites of a lot of different states, we noticed there was a big warning on the website that said, “send blood samples immediately. Do not delay. Children can die.” So there was these like really big warnings saying that you should do this one thing. And so then we thought, well, if there are these really big warnings about this, somebody probably hasn’t done it in the past, right? These warnings were toward hospital personnel? Yes. Yeah. The warning for hospitals to make sure to send these samples promptly.

Skip to 2 minutes and 12 seconds And then one thing I always think about when I’m looking at a story is how something is supposed to work, and then how it actually works. And then you compare the two, right? So in this case, newborn screening samples were supposed to be sent quickly to state labs to be tested so babies don’t get sick and die. So then I had to find out what was actually happening. The story is in the middle. OK. So how did you begin to follow the trail afterwards? So you get some initial data. You poke around a little bit in the beginning, right? You see that there’s some discrepancies. And so there’s a story.

Skip to 2 minutes and 56 seconds And so then you begin to dig further into this, right, in order to develop this huge expose that you produced in the end. So how did you follow the trail from there? Where did you go from there? Well, I mean, it was a lot of work. It was a lot of work. How long did it take, the whole project? Basically what I did was made sure to stay really organised, so I was collecting data from every state. So I was collecting it and analysing it. And then we turned it into an interactive. So I was doing that. The thing about journalism is you’re telling a story, right? And so I was always also focused on the storytelling element of this.

Skip to 3 minutes and 46 seconds So I needed to find characters. I needed to find people who had been affected. So I spent a lot of time trying to find children and families who had been affected by delayed newborn screening tests. And then at the same time, I was also kind of looking at the policy angle, right? So what happened, what happened with federal laws and state laws previously that has allowed this to be such a big problem? So those were kind of the different angles I was working. So which bits of information were most difficult to find out of all the different types of information and stories that you were collecting?

Skip to 4 minutes and 33 seconds I mean, getting the data for the specific hospitals for each state was the most difficult. So I was trying to find hospital by hospital which ones were the worst at newborn screening, which ones were sending the most late samples. So it was difficult because I got a lot of pushback from the state health departments. Initially they all told me no, that they wouldn’t give me the information. So I had to spend a great deal of time negotiating with them, hassling them, calling them repeatedly, and also explaining to them what I really needed. In some cases, they just didn’t understand. And that was my fault, because I hadn’t properly communicated what I was actually looking for.

Skip to 5 minutes and 32 seconds But a lot of times they were also just trying to not give me the information because they didn’t want the problem publicised. So actually you went into my next question already of how do you deal with people who don’t want to talk to you, because I think you had a lot of that in this case, right? Yes. It’s all about persistence and being reasonable. So I was incredibly persistent throughout this whole process. I’ve never really done anything like this before. People tried to ignore me a lot. They hung up on me. But I just kept calling back, again, because it’s really important. It’s really, really important information. So I would explain that to them.

Skip to 6 minutes and 23 seconds Sometimes I would go around specific individuals.

Skip to 6 minutes and 28 seconds So a lot of times the people I was talking to was the head of the state lab in a particular state. And so if they would shut me down and say no, I’d go to the head of the state health department. You’d go above them? I’d go above them, yeah. They don’t like that, but it was necessary. When did you know that you had enough information and you had done enough research on all this? When did you decide to stop, because sometimes I think you have a problem of, when do you stop? Right. Well, a lot of it was centred on the data, right? So I was trying to get data from all 50 states.

Skip to 7 minutes and 15 seconds And so when it became clear– when the story ran I ended up getting it from 31 states, 31 out of 50. So when it became clear that I wasn’t going to get it from the remaining 19, then it was time to stop. Then it was time to publish the story.

Researching stories - part two

Watch this interview with Ellen Gabler, investigative reporter and assistant editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS).

While watching the interview with Gabler, think which of her own techniques or the advice she gives that are particularly helpful and post your thoughts in the comments area.

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This video is from the free online course:

Introduction to Journalism

University of Strathclyde