Good reporting unmasks trends

Reporting bucks rumored trend. All news stories appearing in the Daily can be traced back to their beginnings. Stories are often triggered by specific newsworthy events, such as a demonstration or a speech. Some stories come from tips from readers or issues brought up in letters to the editor. Other stories develop from information learned on a reporter’s beat.
Each Daily reporter has a beat he or she covers. A beat is a specific area of the University community, such as the medical school, administration, or student government and organizations. Reporters specialize in those areas, learning the issues, getting to know the people on that beat and developing sources.
Reporters also look outside the University for story ideas. They look to other media outlets for news about issues related to their beats. One such story appears in today’s paper.
Reporter Sarah Hallonquist saw a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education last summer about grade inflation on college campuses. Hallonquist wondered if the same trend was occurring at the University and filed the idea away to investigate later. Since the story had no time peg — it wasn’t related to a specific event on a particular date — she knew she could return to it when she had time.
Hallonquist made time for the story in January and began gathering statistics from the University’s Office of Planning and Analysis. She began with records from 1987, 1992 and 1996, eventually obtaining records for the entire 10-year period from 1987 to 1997. Working with her editor, Brian Bakst, and Daily librarian, Chris Trejbal, Hallonquist analyzed the numbers, looking for an upward trend in the grades.
She found the upward trend, albeit a slight one, and began to develop questions for potential sources while still gathering information on the topic from other universities and newspaper archives.
Along with Bakst, Hallonquist developed theories about the causes of grade inflation at the University and started making phone calls and asking questions.
This story, originally slated to run in the Daily on Feb. 9, hit a snag when Hallonquist learned from a source that the numbers she was told were grade point averages were not in fact true-weighted grade point averages. The story was postponed while Hallonquist went back to the Office of Planning and Analysis for better numbers and a more thorough explanation.
Hallonquist eventually got the information she needed, talked to sources, crunched numbers and wrote the story. She did not find a clear reason for the upward trend, nor any source who was able to point to a specific cause.
In writing this story, Hallonquist was able to avoid a problem that plagues reporters when writing about trends: creating a trend where none exists. Journalist and researcher Caryl Rivers wrote about this problem in her book “Slick Spins and Fractured Facts: How Cultural Myths Distort the News.”
Rivers called many trend stories examples of the reporting process done backwards. Reporters decide a trend exists, then go out and collect quotes that will validate their theory.
Hallonquist did the right thing on this story. She went looking for a trend, and when she didn’t find exactly what she had expected, she wrote a well-researched story about the University’s situation in the context of a proven national trend.
“That’s OK though,” Hallonquist said, “I don’t want to create news I don’t have.”
And those are words all reporters should live by.
Editor’s Cut
A letter from Amanda Perlman appeared in Friday’s Daily. The letter, “Lawsuit involvement creates controversy,” was printed without a paragraph Perlman felt was crucial to making her point. When the letter was submitted, via e-mail, the body and the signature of the letter were followed by a quote from Jessie Roos’ 1997 statement submitted to the Daily when she filed for election to the College of Liberal Arts Senate. Because the quoted material, which was indeed crucial to Perlman’s point, was attached to the letter below her signature, it was not considered part of the letter and therefore was not run.
The statement by Roos said, in part, “I believe the Minnesota Student Association should be the voice of the undergraduates at the University of Minnesota. It is my goal to see MSA held more accountable to students.”
Perlman was angered by the cut, which she felt turned her letter into a nonsensical rant.
“Without Ms. Roos’s quote from the Daily being printed with my statement, it doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” Perlman wrote in a complaint to me.
I agree and take responsibility for that mistake. I was the one who cut the quote from the letter. Since it was unclear to me that the quote was part of the letter, I should have checked with Perlman before making the cut.
I am reluctant to criticize Daily editorials because they are opinion pieces rather than news stories, but two editorials last week deserve mention.
Tuesday’s editorial, “Maine repeal denies basic human rights,” was unclear and factually misleading. While the editorial was purportedly about the repeal of Maine’s anti-discrimination law, the writer linked that vote to the denial of benefits related to legal marriage. Same-sex marriage is not legal in any state in this country. The anti-discrimination law that was repealed in Maine would have protected gays and lesbians from discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodation and credit, but had no impact on marriage-related rights or privileges. If the editorial writer intended to write about both the repeal of the Maine law and the gay-marriage issue, he should have gotten his facts straight.
Readers have been quick to point out mistakes in spelling, and the Daily deserved the criticism last week for an egregious mistake in an editorial. Thursday’s editorial misspelled the name of the capital city of Canada in the headline and the body of the editorial. It’s bad enough that the editorial board member who wrote the piece didn’t check the spelling of Ottawa, but it’s inexcusable that the mistake made it past the copy desk and into the paper.
As one reader wrote, “The Daily can do better than that.”
Well, one would certainly hope so.

Melodie Bahan’s column appears on alternate Mondays. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 627-4070 ext. 3282.