Saturday, May 4, 2013

Panelists emphasize building trust with sources

By Jacob Beltran

For panelist Sig Christenson, military reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, reporting for the military started out as a local emphasis, but after the war in Iraq began, it became a national beat.

Christenson was one one of three reporters at the Region 8 SPJ conference who spoke on the topic of military reporting. Other panelists included Jeremy Schwartz, reporter for the Austin American Statesman, and Karisa King, reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.

Topics ranged from offering advice to reporters on how to transition into military beats, establishing trust with sources, to how newspapers have increased their military reporting coverage in response to the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan.

Moderator Ryan Loyd, a reporter from Texas Public Radio, asked panelists to offer advice on how to get past the scrutiny of military public information officers, who are sensitive to how the military is portrayed in the media.

The panel agreed that cultivating sources is the most important way to tell stories that are accurate and truthful.

“Trust is a big issue across the board,” Christenson said.

He added that developing relationships with public information officers is tough and that there is a pressure to write sympathetic stories. He encouraged reporters to talk to the soldiers to get closer to the truth.

Prior to covering the military, Schwartz said he had not experienced the levels of control and scrutiny put forth by military public relations offices.

Schwartz said that compared to San Antonio, Austin did not focus a lot of coverage on the military until the Fort Hood shooting.

“Afterwards focus skyrocketed in the paper,” he recalled. “It became a storyline that the paper embraced.”

Prior to this, Christenson said the Austin-American Statesman considered military reporting an afterthought.

Following the incident at Fort Hood, the paper formed a team to develop an an enterprise reporting project that looked at veteran mortality and the causes of death for 200 military personnel.

For several of the panelists, reporting in San Antonio where there is a large military presence means there is a responsibility to tell stories for military families and those with a military background.

Asked how to connect with military sources without going through public information officers, King said the best approach is to find someone, an advocate, attorney or other family member to get inside the story.

Also, for reporters breaking into the industry, King said that it’s important not to be afraid to ask about unfamiliar military jargon.

“Don't be afraid to raise your hand and say I'm the only one who's not in that club,” she said.

 King encouraged new military reporters to have the confidence to to learn, without being intimidated.

“It takes years to learn this beat,” Christenson said.

Recommended by Christenson: This site serves as an advocate for military reporters and is a resource for reporters starting on military beats.
Use the FOIA process.

Recommended by King: - The army court of criminal appeals.
Reporters should access the Courts System. The dockets are online and the military appeals system is very useful, these judgments are also viewable online.. This wasn’t always the case. The internet has changed the kind of information we can gain access to.
Article 32 hearings are open to the public.
An important entry point for Relying on testimony to report.

Tips from Schwartz:
The courtroom is a controlled environment. Phones have to be left behind the security desk. But some military environments allow laptops and phones in the military courtrooms, but you can’t be online.

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