A fellowship from the Fund for Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting allowed me to spend six days in August 2012 at an Investigative Reporters and Editors boot camp.
That training gave me the confidence to ask for complicated data and analyze it to show readers the impact of public policy without having to rely on the interpretations offered up by government employees or politicians.
I was the politics and York County beat reporter for The Herald in Rock Hill, S.C., a small newsroom with a watchdog focus, when I attended boot camp. When I got back, I wanted to investigate complaints that the county’s ambulance service was neglecting the rural towns to the west by positioning trucks mostly in the eastern, urban communities where call volumes were higher and fee payments more plentiful.
County officials were unsure how to fulfill my request, but the tech lingo I learned at boot camp helped me negotiate my way to the database manager. The data was massive and had errors, but tricks I learned in boot camp helped me identify the problems and work with the county to get accurate data.
The article I wrote traced one western-York County man’s 911 call for help. Using the data, I was able to show how the ambulance company’s repositioning of trucks stationed in the west to fill holes in coverage in the east left no available trucks nearby when the man called for help. Emergency units scrambled to get to him from the other side of the county. The response time exceeded the company’s standards.
Not long after that story, I was hired to cover the S.C. Statehouse in Columbia for The State newspaper. I write about politics, state government and K-12 education and have drawn on my training for several projects.
I analyzed campaign finance data to show how a New York millionaire and private school-choice advocate used a loophole to shower S.C. lawmakers with campaign cash that far exceeded individual contribution limits.
When the state’s child-welfare agency was taking heat for high employee turnover and children dying while in the state’s care, the agency’s director told lawmakers that child-welfare workers averaged single-digit caseloads. But when I analyzed the caseloads data, I found that 40 percent of workers had caseloads far higher than experts recommend. The data showed how statistics, and the people using them, can be deceiving. The agency director had included supervisors and trainees in her average—employees not representative of typical caseworkers.
When our state’s governor announced a plan to make public-education spending fairer for children in poor, rural school districts, I asked her office for spreadsheets detailing how much money each school district would receive under her plan.
The data showed the plan’s real impact. Comparing the spending plan to the current year’s budget, I found that districts’ budgets would increase from a half percent to six percent. While the increase was a welcome boost to some districts, the plan did little to address underlying tax and policy issues that led to grave disparities between districts.
Boot camp has changed my reporting and the depth of the projects I’m able to tackle. It also has equipped me with the tools to teach myself and to share that knowledge with my newsroom colleagues. If you’re a reporter in a rural newsroom, I strongly urge you to apply for the fellowship. Your time away from the beat will be well worth it.
BIO: Jamie Self is a reporter at The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., covering politics, the S.C. Legislature and K-12 education. She received 1st Place awards from the S.C. Press Association for government beat reporting in 2013 and 2014, and education beat reporting in 2014.