Digitally Fighting for Others

Tap…Tap…Tap

Your footsteps strike the tile floor, echoing in the distance like a metronome keeping time on the edge of a grand piano. A salesperson standing at one of the many mall kiosk’s greets you, confidently explaining all of the reasons you simply cannot live without this face cream. Before you know it, you’re walking away with an unexpected $600 purchase. The next morning, full of buyers remorse, you head back to the kiosk with the intent on returning the face cream, only to find out that you can’t. The salesman from the day before points to the bottom of the receipt, where the no-return policy is located.

You’re stuck.

betty-resized-300x160Unless of course, you are asking for help from Akron Beacon Journal’s 15-year veteran, Betty Lin-Fisher, who dug into the Ohio Revised Code to figure out exactly what the policy on returns is.

“They have to have a sign posted and these guys didn’t at all,” Lin-Fisher told me. “I met [the purchaser] at the mall, got the mall manager involved, and we got her full refund.”

Lin-Fisher and I spoke about the importance of computer assisted reporting and the benefits to current and future reporters. The situation above is a snippet of a real story Lin-Fisher worked that will head to print this Sunday.

takingaction1The story will run alongside others of her #TakingAction series which get published in the Akron Beacon Journal and shared on her personal Twitter account. While she enjoys doing the legwork to help people get information, she also acknowledges that she is fighting a digital battle that a lot of her readers are unable to fight on their own.

“Often I’ll hear, ‘Honey, I don’t use the internet’. So I intend to post the link information to the Attorney General’s website but make sure to add the phone number too.” The information goes nowhere if people don’t know how to use it.

She joked that she is only as good as the research she can find  and strongly advised that the best thing that younger reporters and journalism students could do, is to refine their researching and CAR skills. Most importantly, making sure you know the difference between a factual website and an advocacy group.

“Some of those organizations sound really official but maybe they’re lobbyist or an industry trade group. What you’re looking at might be somebody’s opinion.”

Never Stop Learning

A lot of her techniques and skills have been developed over her 21-year career in journalism. A lot of networking and on the job learning. She did say that she was supported in furthering her computer assisted reporting skills, citing that the ABJ received a grant to send her and another journalist to the Investigate Reporters & Editors conference held in Columbus, Ohio earlier this year in the spring.

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“It was literally a two day crash-course of excel sheets, formulas and more,” She said. “Only two of us could go, so we came back and did a presentation for our staff.”

Not only did they do a presentation, but the IRE stipulated that they wanted to see the CAR techniques learned at the conference utilized in a story within the next six months. So they aimed their newly refined skills at a piece on the University Park Alliance.

Her team aggregated the available documentation to help explain the large level of debt placed against the UPA. Previous purchase records, sale listings, lawsuits and more were each utilized to anchor the facts of the situation. A personal visit to an abandoned UPA owned properties helped readers visualize exactly was left in the absence of accountability. The CAR skills became an invaluable tool. While she says those skills are great for long in-depth stories, they’re just as valuable for a quick turnaround story.

“You can’t just live in a cave. You need to have those computer and internet skills to find a stepping off point.”

Computer assisted reporting has become paramount in the way good journalists verify and confirm solid news stories. Regardless of whether or not the story involves a small container of face cream or a large pile of unpaid debt, it  looks like the best course to the truth is through the computer.

-Devon D. McCarty.

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