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How two veteran reporters ensure their stories have impact

How two veteran reporters ensure their stories have impact

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Carol Marbin Miller of The Miami Herald and Bob Ortega of CNN talk to 2018 National Fellows this week.
Carol Marbin Miller of The Miami Herald and Bob Ortega of CNN talk to 2018 National Fellows this week.

At a certain point, every ambitious reporter wants to move beyond stories describing problems to stories that spur solutions to problems. But how do you do that? How do you break out of Groundhog Day and ensure your stories have real impact? 

Carol Marbin Miller, senior investigative reporter for The Miami Herald, and Bob Ortega, senior writer for CNN Investigates in Phoenix, are veteran journalists with a deep track record of producing big stories that lead to changes. The pair shared insights from their decades of combined experience with reporters from across the country at the 2018 National Fellowship earlier this week.

Marbin Miller’s 2017 blockbuster report, “Fight Club,” was the culmination of a two-year investigation that uncovered horrific levels of abuse and guard-sanctioned beatings in Florida’s juvenile justice system. “The overarching theme was that this was all going on because Florida didn’t care to pay enough for anything that approaches high-quality employees,” Marbin Miller said. 

The series, reported with Audra D.S. Burch under the auspices of the National Fellowship, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.  It led the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice to overhaul its hiring practices, the Legislature to approve more funds to attract more qualified guards and a local district attorney to convene a grand jury investigation, which led to an indictment.
 
Before “Fight Club,” Marbin Miller spent three years with Burch reporting the stories that became “Innocents Lost,” an exhaustive look at soaring rates of children dying in troubled homes after the state cut services and took fewer kids into custody. The series included the individual stories of 477 children who died of abuse or neglect.
 
Looking back on those projects, Marbin Miller doesn’t credit some sophisticated social media strategy or novel engagement effort for their hard-hitting impact. Instead, she points to the stories’ leads. For example, the central story in “Innocents Lost” paints an incredibly detailed picture of the death of two twins, Tariji and Tavont’ae Gordon:
 
Fraternal twins Tariji and Tavont’ae Gordon were born together, but died two years, eight months and 24 days apart. One was buried in a potter’s field; the other was disposed of in a shallow grave covered by earth, plywood and a sheet of tin. [Read on here.]

 

“What made that lead work was our absolute obsession with the details,” Marbin Miller said. “We spent weeks trying to find out what the suitcase looked like, what Tariji was wearing, how she was buried.”

“That was what made the beginning of this project come alive and frankly it made our readers keep reading,” she added. “That lead was the thing everyone talked about when we landed that story — when we heard from readers, when we heard from policymakers, when we heard from judges, that’s what everyone talked about.”

That level of notice in turn gave the series legislative impact. It prompted unanimous passage of a bill overhauling the Florida Department of Children and Families, “the most important part of which was a provision that said the lives and welfare of children were more important than the rights of parents,” Marbin Miller said.

The veteran reporter is an absolute stickler for telling details, and she’ll spend months tracking down every record, interview, video tape and data point she can find to tell the story in the most vivid terms possible. Those sources are her raw materials for crafting a story with impact, one resonant detail at a time.

“Use the data — that’s your skeleton, that’s your backbone. But tell the stories, and tell them compellingly. Make sure they’re in your stories, quote them, get the details. That’s where you’re really going to rope them in, those telling details.”

Get creative to reach your target audience

That might be a sound strategy if the people who read your paper are the ones you’re trying to reach. But what if the people you’re reporting about don’t read The Miami Herald or The Arizona Republic?

That was one of the problems confronting Bob Ortega, then at the Republic, when he started reporting on the problem of Latino parents failing to put their kids in car seats. While about 90 percent of Arizonans were using car seats, only 20 percent of Hispanics were, according to Ortega. The problem was especially bad near the border and in northern Mexico, where his reporting often took him. Even when car seats were used, many weren’t installed correctly. As a result, Latino kids were dying and getting injured at much higher rates than non-Latinos.

But simply reporting on the problem — even through tragic stories of loss and unnecessary death — wasn’t likely to solve the problem. “The question was, 'How do we reach those parents who do not use child car seats, and get them to install and use them properly?'” Ortega told fellow reporters. 

So he started looking at how medical groups in Dallas, Cincinnati and Philadelphia had successfully boosted car-seat use among Latinos in those cities. He started recruiting local Hispanic leaders and created a nonprofit, Sientelos Seguros/Seat Them Safely, to raise funds and educate the local community. He persuaded his paper to partner with Spanish-language outlets and translated his stories for them. He also recruited pro bono help from a local Hispanic-owned PR firm that created graphics and PSAs. 

One of the smartest things Ortega did was to think critically about how his intended audience gets information, and who were the most trusted sources in the community. For the seat-belt story, that led him to reach out to the Roman Catholic Church, which proved a willing partner. The Diocese of Phoenix helped organize car-seat training events, spread word about Ortega’s reporting on car seats via parish newsletters and even had priests publicly bless car seats to encourage their use. 

While all this might sound more like advocacy than traditional journalism, it all depends on the nature of the story you’re pursuing, Ortega said.

“Obviously, there’s a difference between advocacy that’s pretty neutral — in our case I don’t think there would be anybody saying, ‘I think we need to have more kids dying in cars’ — versus something where you’re really taking sides on a political issue.”

Ortega and Marbin Miller obviously took very different approaches to ensuring their reporting made a difference. There isn’t a straightforward playbook here. But they both have found a way to track down gripping stories on matters of life-and-death urgency, while making sure they reach those who can move the wheels of change.

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