May

15

 Hi Laurel,

Given your extensive background in financial journalism I was hoping your could offer insight into an investigative journalism project I've been assigned for a class at UCLA. I'd be grateful to hear your thoughts and wisdom relating to a few questions I have. The questions are followed by my thoughts and experience thus far.

How did you learn to manage the news writing process to not always write about doomsday or sounding alarmist? Are there ways to able to spin a story to appear that you are selling doomsday, but between the lines you are actually speaking truth? Is a story "news" if people don't read it, read it and but don't consider it news, or disregard it because it doesn't coincide with their chosen bias?

I started with the idea of a story on Sharesleuth, a venture funded by Mark Cuban, created to use investigative journalists to dig up corporate dirt, write up a report on the findings, trade on the information, and then release the report. Some consider this unethical and some even mention insider trading. I didn't believe this represented either of these, and because people want negative news, a story on this concept would probably not be interesting to many. Like you and Vic say, people are optimists and want the negative news. They don't want to hear from the Miles and the Beckys of the world.

I paired up with a woman investigating deaths and injuries on amusement park rides. At first I didn't think this was a problem worth paying attention to. And after an hour of research I realized this was the smallest problem of all mankind. She refused to comprehend the numbers. There has not been an increase in deaths since the mid-80s, and the trend has been 1 to 2 deaths a year. I could go no further with this.

Clinical trials seem ripe for investigative journalists to rip. Take, for example, Gerson Lehrman consultants and the doctors leaking info. Then I saw a story written by David Evans of Bloomberg, an in-depth series on his view of the shady dealings of clinical trials and taking advantage of participants. After more research, and a surprise visit to a clinical trial facility here in LA, I knew I couldn't write about this side of the story either. There will be bad companies out there in every industry, but clinical trials are a critically important necessity to the process of bringing drugs to market. I also just read an article documenting (though not tested through the scientific method) the corresponding decreases in trial participants after seeing numerous negative articles in the paper.

I was thinking of doing a number of numerical studies on the percentage of bad clinical trial sites, ones that had been sanctioned, ones with the most consumer complaints, and showing what a minuscule percentage it is. Maybe tie in that it's not the Contract Research Organizations specifying that participants be low-income immigrants, but rather an equation of supply and demand. If these people have no better income alternatives then they chose to go and sign up for a trial for financial benefit. They say how bad the consent forms are. Is that supposed to be unique to this industry? All consent forms are barely readable. They are legalese because if they weren't they would be worthless in a court.

Do you have any suggestions where I could take one of these stories? What perspectives do you find interesting surrounding any of these topics? Thanks so much and any of your thoughts on the subject would be greatly appreciated and thought about deeply.

Thanks again,

Kevin Kirkpatrick

Laurel Kenner replies: 

Dear Kevin,

Your questions are all excellent, and I got a kick out of the dead-end stories, So many editors try to unload such stories on the public by getting hacks to do the work. It takes courage to tell them that there is no story there, but at the end your integrity will earn respect.

I believe you could go far in journalism, but you may run into a lot of grief along the way. Journalism today is in a shameful state.

The important thing is to always seek and tell the truth. Don't worry about hiding your optimism. Don't be afraid to be different. Be bold and be big.

I would be happy to respond in greater detail. I happen to be in L.A. this week, and you would be welcome to join me for breakfast or lunch at Shutters in Santa Monica (Pico Boulevard at the beach) tomorrow, Thursday or Friday.


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  1. Greg Rehmke on May 16, 2007 1:06 pm

    Kevin,

    I enjoyed your email and your adventures trying to find doomsday problems to investigate. You are not alone, of course. Michael Crichton’s research looking for a scary environment doomsday scenario for a new novel was similarly frustrating. The more he tried to nail down the disaster details so he could get on with the story, the more he came to understand the fear-mongering of environmental groups was itself the story. So he ended up writing “State of Fear.”

    John Stossel tells of his years of consumer reporting, and though he uncovered plenty of small-time fraud and deception, he began to realize the bigger story was everyday big-time fraud and deception on the part of state and federal governments.

    One investigative story I would love to see, since you have already documented the high safety levels of amusement park rides, would be to compare the safety and economics of amusement park for-profit “rapid-transit” technologies with government-funded transit projects. Government-funded “light” rail in San Jose, for example, seems a joke. First off, it isn’t very light. It looks like 100-year train designs rumbling along. (Some benefits: I thought I would miss the train last week, but it turned out I could jog faster than the train, rolling my luggage for a full block, so was able to get to the stop first). So why can’t super-safe amusement park ride technology be deployed instead of old and heavy transit.

    New York City wants to spend billions to build another subway line down the East Side of Manhattan. Those billions would feed many NYC special interests for many years. But if private transit could be deployed (and the city allowed right-of-ways), it might be much cheaper to run new transit lines mid-block right through NYC buildings two or three stories up. Free-market amusement park rides are light, strong, and small, and have advanced so far over the decades. I wonder if the builders of this technology ever submit bids on city transit projects. In Seattle they are spending a billion to build a huge and heavy “light-rail” line to the airport (from the only part of town where people are too poor to fly much). It just seems like amusement part ride technology would be so much less expensive (especially when it isn’t necessary to spin riders upside down…).

    Greg Rehmke

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