A fellow reporter once told me when looking for a story I needed to find its heartbeat.
I thought I understood the concept of finding a face to show my readers, presenting someone or something that could stand as the life blood of a particular story.
But frequently, if not always, there are times when journalists learn details or encounter a set of circumstances that just won’t make it into the paper or on the website. And sometimes, the face and the heartbeat aren’t the same thing.
Last week, for example, I met with individuals who had insight into a story I was working on about a little girl who was killed in 2008. Most of them wouldn’t speak to me on the record, but their stories contributed to my understanding of the situation surrounding baby Davi-Angela Harber’s death.
One long conversation with a family member of Davi-Angela’s was particualrly striking. She was hard, when most people pushing 90 have softended somewhat. Her eyes pounced from moving car to walking pedestrian on the street, not paranoid, but keenly aware of everything around her.
She told me she looks sideways at the grade school kids that walk down her cul-de-sac. She said she always “packs protection.” In fact, as she sat next to me, she reached up to her chest and pressed around the outlines of where she was hiding a knife in her brazier.
This relative was one of many who saw but never reported Davi-Angela’s abuse. She thought holding a knife to Davi-Angela’s abuser’s neck would correct the problem.
Davi-Angel’s mother, DeAngela Barger, is currently jailed on a fist degree murder charge in connection with her daughter’s death. Regardless of her guilt, Oklahoma has laws on the book for reporting child abuse: If you see it, you’re supposed to call and report it.
In police reports and in conversations with me, several family members admitted they never called the police when they saw her kicked, punched and waylaid.
Davi-Angela was the face to my story, but this fact was the heart beat. One can only wonder how things might have changes if someone had spoken up for this little girl.
Any tips for us? Suggestions? Observations?
–Water rights are always a contentious topic in Oklahoma, although it’s not all about selling excess water to other states. Watchdog reporter John Estus takes a look at a surprising controversy over an Oklahoma City water trust’s plans to buy water from Sardis Lake in southeast Oklahoma.
–Oklahoma hasn’t been hit as hard by the fallout from the mortgage market, but people have been affected here in the state. Watchdog reporter Vallery Brown talks to a local minister, who took out an adjustable-rate mortgage but soon ran into problems.
–It’s been a tumultuous year at mega-charity Feed the Children, what with infighting among board members and the founders. But that hasn’t dented the charity’s fund raising efforts. Reporter Nolan Clay has the latest filing Feed the Children made with the Internal Revenue Service that showed contributions of almost $1.2 billion last year.
–Deadly tornadoes struck several other states over the weekend, but not Oklahoma. Still, columnist Bryan Painter takes a look at the numbers of tornadoes in Oklahoma since 1950. What he found might surprise you.
–Education reporter Megan Rolland describes the run-down conditions at an Oklahoma City alternative school:
The Oklahoma City school for pregnant teenagers and other at-risk youths lacks heat in some classrooms, has a computer lab infested with termites and a roof that leaks in the rain.
Emerson Alternative School, which offers day care for the girls’ babies and also serves at-risk young men, was built in 1894 and will be one of the district’s last schools to be renovated under the MAPS for Kids program.
–Those vanity tags do have limits on them, even if you are paying the state for the privilege of personalizing your license plates. Nolan Clay has more on a few that slipped by at the Oklahoma Tax Commission, as well as some examples of vanity tags rejected by the agency.
–Arizona’s new law on illegal immigration made most of the news over the weekend, but a reporter from the Des Moines Register takes a look at Oklahoma’s recent immigration law, House Bill 1804.
–As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, the New York Times has a story about how some of the service members are treated when they return stateside and are assigned to Warrior Transition Units:
But interviews with more than a dozen soldiers and health care professionals from Fort Carson’s transition unit, along with reports from other posts, suggest that the units are far from being restful sanctuaries. For many soldiers, they have become warehouses of despair, where damaged men and women are kept out of sight, fed a diet of powerful prescription pills and treated harshly by noncommissioned officers. Because of their wounds, soldiers in Warrior Transition Units are particularly vulnerable to depression and addiction, but many soldiers from Fort Carson’s unit say their treatment there has made their suffering worse.
–Finally, rats are a fact of life in urban areas like New York City. But the city’s residents in one of its more ritzy neighborhoods are complaining about a new infestation of the rodents. I don’t know what’s more interesting about this story: that the super-rich aren’t immune to urban problems, or the fact that New York City has a Rat Information Portal.
It’s hard to pinpoint the single cause of any rat infestation. Experts say rats, like humans, want to be near food sources and won’t move out of their homes if they don’t have to.
The effects of large explosions night after night on rats aren’t well documented, says Bobby Corrigan, a rodent expert who consults for the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“The public has the perception that if there’s construction, there’s going to be rats,” he says. “There’s never any scientific evidence to show those two things are correlated.”
A Seminole County trial was interrupted Tuesday when a courtroom deputy observed a man in the gallery videotaping proceedings with a tiny camera hidden inside a device that looked like a pen. The judge excused the jury for lunch and then called the man to the front of the courtroom and ask what he was up to. The man, who identified himself as David King of Ada, said he had bought the hidden camera in China and had decided on his own that it would be intesting to videotape the trial of his friend, Stephanie Sills. Special Judge Gayla Arnold did not appear to be amused. Arnold said it was against court rules to record court proceedings without first obtaining permission. She confiscated the camera for the duration of the trial and said if anyone else videotaped proceedings without prior permission, she would consider the person to be in contempt. In this day and age, when cameras can be found in cell phones and numerous other devices, their use in inappropriate places could increasingly become an issue.
Reporters get all manner of bizarre tips from the public. Such a tip led to last week’s story on a crucifix some said showed a large penis on Jesus. The story has since gone international, having been picked up by blogs and news sites worldwide. It has received tens of thousands of hits on NewsOK.
And it all started with a phone call. That’s somewhat remarkable considering all the dead ends we typically run into when we get calls from the public that seem as outrageous as this call about Jesus’s genitals.
Many of the strangest calls I’ve taken as a reporter came years ago when I worked the Saturday police beat. Something about Saturdays just seemed to ignite strangeness in people.
One of my regular Saturday callers often phoned asking what I could do to stop a group of men (whom she called “beefcakes”) from stealing a bird feeder from her back yard garden. Supposedly, this theft was occurring hourly. Another regular caller was convinced that a local funeral home had kidnapped her family, tapped her phones, stolen her identity and then sold that identity to the National Security Agency, which was trying to repossess her home and have her “locked up” for “knowing too much” (I later traced her phone number to a public housing unit, but that’s neither here nor there).
And then there’s The Growler, who earned his nickname because of the unmistakable growl in his voice. The Growler did not restrict his calls to Saturdays. For a couple years, it seemed he called at least one reporter a day with some sort of complaint or conspiracy theory. The Growler would always call sometime between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., meaning he’d never actually speak to the reporter because they weren’t at work yet. Instead, The Growler left long, meandering messages that were often cut off by our voicemail system because they lasted too long. No matter; the Growler would simply redial and finish ranting. Years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to start my day with three or four voicemails from The Growler. He was usually hacked off about something he’d just read in the paper that a government official had done or said. For whatever reason, The Growler hasn’t called in years. I do miss him, even though I’ve never actually spoken to the man.
My colleagues have all encountered countless daffy tipsters like these. My point is we get a lot of crazies calling up here. Just the nature of the business. So when I got a call last week from a woman claiming there was a large, erect penis on Jesus on a crucifix in a local Catholic church, you’ll understand why I didn’t take it seriously at first. Then other folks started calling, and a picture of the piece in question appeared in my e-mail. We knew then we had a story.
Just proves that sometimes picking up the phone is all it takes to find a story. Never know who – or what – awaits on the other end of the line.
If you’re not crazy and have a tip, call me at (405) 475-3481.
It must be Monday if the weekend rain has stopped. Here’s what you might have missed over the weekend from our Watchdog team and others here at The Oklahoman:
–Watchdog reporter Randy Ellis has a comprehensive look at the inspection records and star ratings of a privately run day care in Oklahoma City that has gotten in trouble lately over lax supervision.
- Academy rating stays unfazed after Oklahoma City child care center’s violations
- Oklahoma City day care center has reported issues to DHS
In related DHS stories, the Tulsa World has the latest on a private group’s lawsuit over the state’s foster care system, as well as how much money DHS has spent defending itself using outside attorneys. Meanwhile, a similar fight is brewing in Massachusetts over that state’s foster care system.
–Watchdog reporter Ann Kelley has been on the case of the Liberian girls who were adopted by a Fairview couple from the beginning. Kelley talked to Liberian officials who have been concerned enough about several U.S. adoption cases, including the Oklahoma one, to temporarily halt adoptions from the African nation.
–Our Washington bureau reporter Chris Casteel followed a recent Congressional hearing that looked at how much data schools and other educational institutions are collecting on schoolchildren.
–In related education news, reporter Megan Rolland looks back at the fight over House Bill 1017 back in 1990. The parallels to today are striking: Tea Party protests, taxes and educational funding efforts (like the battle over this year’s State Question 744).
–Meanwhile, Capitol reporter Michael McNutt has the latest on the infighting among the loose coalition of Tea Party interests in the state.
–The tragic mine accident in West Virginia has gotten a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks. On Sunday, the Washington Post took a look at the “revolving door” of lobbyists and industry regulators in the mining industry:
More than 200 former congressional staff members, federal regulators and lawmakers are employed by the mining industry as lobbyists, consultants or senior executives, including dozens who work for coal companies with the worst safety records in the nation, a Washington Post analysis shows.
The revolving door has also brought industry officials into government as policy aides in Congress or officials of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which enforces safety standards.
The movement between industry and government allows both to benefit from crucial expertise, but mining safety experts say it often has led to a regulatory system tilted toward coal company interests. That, they say, has put miners at risk and left behind a flawed enforcement system that probably contributed to this month’s Massey Energy mine explosion in West Virginia.
–The Securities and Exchange Commission filed civil charges Friday against the investment bank Goldman Sachs over some questionable mortgage trades. New York Times reporter Louise Story follows up her previous reporting on the issue with a look at how much top Goldman executives were following those trades at one of their units.
–California nonprofit news outlet CaliforniaWatch reported how that state’s nursing homes have been reaping millions in subsidies, even as they cut staff.
Happy Monday from OPUBCO HQ, where we had some great stories in the paper and online this past weekend. Here’s what you might have missed if you were out doing yard work like everyone else in my neighborhood:
–Watchdog reporter Ann Kelley and photographer Jim Beckel were in the right place at the right time on Friday. They were in Fairview getting an exclusive interview with the adoptive parents of the Liberian girls when the state sent a social worker to pick up the girls. That story appeared in Saturday’s paper. Then on Sunday, Kelley had the main story, a long-sought-after interview with the parents. (Read previous stories on this issue at our DHS coverage page.)
–State Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, continues to dodge questions about his campaign finance reports. We had a follow-up story on Sunday about Terrill’s amended reports with the state Ethics Commission. He did not list almost $13,000 in campaign contributions last year until reporters with the Oklahoman asked him about discrepancies between his reports and the reports of several political action committees. Terrill, who was fairly open about the discrepancies a few weeks ago, has declined to answer follow-up questions from the paper. (Take a look at Terrill’s latest Ethics Commission amended report and copies of canceled checks here.)
–Most Oklahoma Catholics know the story of Okarche’s Father Stanley Rother, who was murdered in Guatemala’s bloody civil war almost 30 years ago. Even if you’ve heard the story before, it’s worth checking out reporter Ron Jackson’s Story of the Ages, a multimedia package about Father Rother.
Within a month, Rother reluctantly fled for his life after being told he was on a government hit list. Finally, after months of agonizing, Rother concluded his place was among the people of Santiago Atitlan.
“I said, ‘Why do you want to go back?’” recalled Tom Rother, Stanley’s brother and the youngest of five children. “I said, ‘They’re waiting on you, and they’re gonna kill you.’ He said, ‘Well, a shepherd cannot run from his flock.’
–Watchdog reporter Randy Ellis details the difficulty some surviving spouses of disabled veterans are facing when it comes to benefits.
–Education reporter Megan Rolland had a story today comparing the budget woes–and plans–of the Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts.
–Metro reporter John A. Williams had an interesting story about how Census officials are reaching out to the gay and lesbian community.
–Nonprofit journalism group ProPublica had a very detailed look at a secretive hedge fund that played a key role in delaying the fallout from the current financial crisis.
From what we’ve learned, there was nothing illegal in what Magnetar did; it was playing by the rules in place at the time. And the hedge fund didn’t cause the housing bubble or the financial crisis. But the Magnetar Trade does illustrate the perverse incentives and reckless behavior that characterized the last days of the boom.
I got a little late start for this week’s Weekend Rewind, but here’s what you might have missed over the Easter weekend:
–A joint investigation by The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World found the state has been making millions each year from the sale of personal information to insurance companies, employment screening services and data resellers. (For continuing coverage of this issue, click here.)
–A jury in SE Oklahoma ruled against chicken company Tyson Foods Inc. in the first of several lawsuits in McCurtain County that allege Tyson treated chicken growers unfairly. Watchdog reporter Randy Ellis has the story here.
–Young mayors have attracted attention–and notoriety–in several cities, such as Stillwater and Muskogee. Watchdog reporter Michael Baker has a preview of Mayor John Tyler Hammon’s reelection race in Muskogee. One of his opponents in the cousin of U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
–The Honolulu Advertiser has a comprehensive look at nursing homes in Hawaii.
–In a victory of sorts for transparency in South Carolina, several cities are now putting court information online. The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier has more information here.
–I’m a big fan of the Web site Snopes, which debunks all kinds of myths and misperceptions, including those annoying chain e-mails you get from relatives. The New York Times has a look at the people behind the Web site.
In a given week, Snopes tries to set the record straight on everything from political smears to old wives’ tales. No, Kenya did not erect a sign welcoming people to the “birthplace of Barack Obama.” No, Wal-Mart did not authorize illegal immigration raids at its stores. No, the Olive Garden restaurant chain did not hand out $500 gift cards to online fans.
On a related note, columnist Bryan Painter took on e-mail scams over the weekend, too.