Posted 12/04/2011: The season of snow plows and salt trucks is quickly approaching and MoDOT is making preparations for the winter weather. The story I was originally hearing was that many residents were upset that MoDOT was placing less emphasis on some of the minor roads this year in order to cut costs. Sure those roads aren't traveled as often as say, I-70, but people still live there and rumor had it they weren't pleased to hear they may have to wait longer to get their road plowed (if it happened at all).
But after speaking with a few MoDOT representatives, including one of their engineers, I learned that that wasn't the biggest change. MoDOT will be focusing on the most on the most traveled roads, but the department has come up with a few more changes that residents will notice this winter.
New engineering on snow plows has helped to create "wing plows", which are side plows on trucks that allow them to cover over twice the distance they were able to before.
A more efficient salt truck has emerged as a result of new computerized machinery that acts as "smart equipment". That equipment controls the flow of salt so that instead of just pouring out at all times, the speed of the salt released matches the speed of the truck so that excess salt is not spilled, especially when trucks are just stopped at a stoplight or intersection.
Once I heard about these cost-efficient innovations, I realized that that was the main story ... and I hadn't seen it mentioned anywhere. It wouldn't have been right to simply run with a story that residents were mad their streets wouldn't be plowed right away. First of all, not all of those roads are the responsiblity of MoDOT -- in fact, most of them are not. And many would not have realized the work that MoDOT has put into improving their machines and finding efficient ways to cut costs this season.
This week I pursued perhaps the most interesting story in my career to date.
In the midst of the child abuse at Penn State, I decided to do a story on Missouri's child abuse law.
I thought the story would be interesting for two reasons. First, I've noticed a series of sex and child abuse stories re-surfacing where the people who were in a similar situation as Coach Paterno are now being charged for staying quiet ... including stories in my hometown. So that leads me into to my second question ... are states going to start taking a closer look into sex abuse scandals? Will laws change, will penalties change, etc...
I looked into Missouri's law. It's been the same for 35 years and requires that all people considered to be mandated reporters -- teachers, medical professionals, etc -- report child abuse. But only to their superior. Then it is up to the superior to report to the police of the Department of Social Services.
Which makes me wonder ... does this make child abuse scandals easy to cover up? Or even if the intent isn't to cover it up, what if the child is in immediate danger, but has to wait a few days before anyone comes to their rescue because the information was passing through a long line of people?
Interestingly, Missouri's law is also very similar to Pennsylvania...which prompted me to ask, "Will they change it?"
After talking to Jane Cunningham, who seemed to think that the law was sufficient, I talked to the Senate Minority Leader, who after some discussion said he felt people should be going straight to law enforcement, but also said he hadn't heard any talk of a change being brought up in the upcoming legislative session.
Getting in contact with a man named Kenny Rothman was the turning point of the story. Rothman, who is not a St. Louis County attorney, but happened to be a co-sponsor of this bill in 1975. Rothman was proud of his law, and said it was the greatest thing he believed he did in his 22 years as a legislator. As Rothman and I discussed the law, I asked him if he thought it should be changed so that everyone would be required to report straight to the Department of Social Services. And he said yes.
That was such a great aspect of the story -- to be able to talk to the author of the law was such an interesting experience -- I mean, a law that went into effect 35 years ago. And then to hear the author admit that while it was the thing he was proudest of, he would change it if he could do it over. It was a great interview and ended up being a story that I was thought a lot of people cared about. All in all, a great week at the Capitol.
After chasing Governor Jay Nixon down after an awards ceremony for veterans and having him tell me I could only talk to his spokesperson, who told me he would only email me a statement, I began calling senators. There were three I wanted to talk to, and for 6 hours I called and left messages .... I only succeeded in contacting one.
So I wrote up my story using the information I got from the one senator and I left. It was probably about 3:30pm ... by far the earliest I've ever left the capitol building. But I had a lot of school work that needed to get done that night and after weighing the odds of a senator calling me back, I decided it was the right idea to go.
There was still a pang of nervousness in my body as I left the statehouse - I couldn't help wondering, "What if they happen to call back?." That story was mine. I had started it; I had pursued it all day; and I had written up the first two versions. Bottom line was I didn't want anyone but me finishing it.
Sure enough, both senators ended up calling back and an updated version of my story was written by someone else. I saw the headlines tweeted about 2 hours after I left, and it was the worst feeling ever. Not only because I realized someone else had written my story, but I knew that if this story's headlines had already been tweeted, that meant those senators had probably called back within an hour of me leaving.
I hated the feeling that someone else had finished my story and realized I should have waited at least an extra hour or so, just to make sure. Sure, maybe next time I do it maybe the people won't call me back like they did this time ... but at least I will know that if I wait as long as possible, I can avoid that sick-to-my-stomach feeling that I ran out on a story.
A decision was not made...only arguments were heard for both the widower and the doctor's sides. But it made me really think...sure, the court is allowed to decide how much money to award someone, but they are not given absolute power if they have to stay below a certain limit. So is the distribution of power fair? Or is the legislative branch being given too much control over the judiciary?
The case made me think about separation of powers in a way I never had before, and the story proved difficult to start writing because I'm not familiar with a lot of the rules, terms, etc of Supreme Court cases, nor did I have any background on the case until that day. But I was very happy with the finished product, and even more so because it proved to be a true learning experience.
Either way, it is clear that the right to vote is special...and that especially rang true this week in the statehouse. The Senate met to confirm that Missouri would indeed be voting in a presidential primary, and that it would take place in February. But here's the catch...the Republican party is choosing its delegates by caucus...so doesn't that mean that Missouri's presidential primary would serve as nothing more than a public opinion poll? An $8 million public opinion poll to be exact...but that didn't matter to the majority of the state's senators who believed that the right to vote was too crucial a right to give up, and so even if it wouldn't matter in the long run, they still wanted Missourians to have the choice.
I found the Senate meeting fascinating as I listened to senators outlining the alternative ways the state could put $8 million to use, and most senators outlining the importance of giving Missourians the right to vote. At first, I was surprised by the outcome of the meeting, but upon further consideration I really couldn't think of what stance I would have taken had I been one of those senators. Both sides presented great points. But those are the stories I enjoy covering the most. The ones that make you think, and the ones that make you question ideas you never would have otherwise...getting to cover these types of stories is what gives journalists the greatest job out there.
One of the most common stereotypes I seem to hear has to do with geographical location...and it's not people judging those from other countries...it's people making assumptions and generalizations about people of their country. So many times I have heard people voice concern about traveling through areas considered "hood" or being around people they term "thugs". But isn't it true that the same crimes that happen to be committed in many of the underpriveleged areas of our country also happen at some point in every part of the country?
So that brings me to this question...when a father is sent to prison for killing a man, and his son is later sent to prison for armed robbery...did the kid go to prison because of where he lives? Or because of his genes? Or was it just because he thought that if his father committed a crime, it was okay that he did too?
How common is it for a kid to follow in the footsteps of his/her offender parents? And if it is common...is it a social issue? A genetic issue? Or is it a combination of a lot of things?
That's what I want to find out. I want to interview family members in prison together, and ask them how they think they ended up there. Was it because seeing family members do it seemed to negate any idea that it was wrong or bad? Was it because they felt they had no choice but to commit the crime? Or did they just not care? Do they think if they had grown up with the same family members, but in a different area, things would be different? Or would things have been different in the same area, and just with different family members?
I also want to talk to psychologists and specialists who have studied the ways criminals think and behave. I want to ask them what kind of correlations exist in this situation...for example, is the daughter more likely to commit a crime if the mom is the one in jail? Are there certain childhood experiences that people share who have also committed the same crime?
This is the story idea I'm hoping to pursue for a feature. There's so many angles you can take with a story like this, and once I get in touch with the right people who can answer all of my questions, it could be a fascinating story.
This last week proved to be one of the most interesting yet...
While on Monday we seemed to have trouble finding some interesting stories to cover in the political realm, I managed to get State Treasurer Clint Zweifel on the phone and ended up doing a story on an auction of Missourians' private property that he was hosting the next day. I had no idea that the state did this with unclaimed property and was fascinated by many of the things they were auctioning off including various antiques and an Ozzie Smith-autographed baseball and picture. I found it interesting, however, that they don't auction off military items such as medals and awards given to those who have fought for us in war. But that makes sense to me...why should something so precious and valuable that was awarded to someone for risking their life be given to someone else simply because they were the highest bidder? Well, it shouldn't. I really enjoyed covering the story and Zweifel was great to talk to...I was even tempted to go to the auction myself just to check it out.
The excitement also continued with the China hub issue this week. On Wednesday I covered a committee hearing that began with the Eco Devo Committee Chair, Anne Zerr, asking to have an hour-long recess so that they could all return to hear members' proposed amendments to the bill. So you can imagine the shock and frustration by many members when the committee meeting readjourned and all of a sudden Zerr was refusing to hear every member's amendments. It made you wonder who she talked to during that hour that suddenly caused her to change her mind...and why did she bother readjourning the meeting if she wasn't going to do what she said she was going to do? Situations like this are such a common trend in the political world and for some reason, I love it...it adds so much excitement to the meetings and it makes me curious, which is key for a reporter when it comes to asking the right questions and not taking no for an answer.
For the first time this week, I learned about the importance of the date of a state's presidential primary election. Before I did a story on lawmakers pushing for a primary in February or a primary in March, I had no idea that the date of the primary was so important to the state. Obviously, once I thought about it I realized that an early date does probably gives the state a higher ranking on a politician's list of important states to hit up on a campaign trail...but its not something I ever would have thought about had I not done this story and it really was eye-opening. I was interested to talk to politicians and spokespeople for the Republican party to hear the pros and cons of an early versus late primary and what people were hoping would happen come decision time.
My health story this week involved sitting in on a teleconference of one national and two state health organizations, discussing the number of Missouri Medicaid patients who would be affected if the state makes cuts to Medicaid...Congress is proposing to cut billions of dollars, which I learned would affect patients with illnesses ranging from diabetes to cancer to lung disease and so on. I would love to do a follow-up story on this whole situation...but ideally, I would get to talk to patients. I just can't imagine how so many Missourians who depend on Medicaid would survive without their healthcare if these cuts are made...and I can't imagine that the state expects to just leave them hanging. I want to learn more about the bills being proposed and try to understand more fully why the state can't make cuts in areas other than health care -- billions of dollars seems extreme to me.
Another week in the state Capitol and with it another round of interesting stories to pursue as the special session (we think) slowly draws to a close...
The biggest story I covered this week had to do with the China hub - per usual - except Monday we heard not from the Senators or the House members, but Missouri residents themselves...which was interesting...for six and half hours. But it really was interesting, and the testimonies of the various spokespeople for organizations, or just the Missourians speaking for themselves, provided a whole new perspective to the idea of building a trading hub with China at Lambert Airport.
For the first time ever, I feel somewhat of a personal connection to a government story...not because it personally affects me...because I actually think that once a decision has been made, I will rarely think about trading hubs in my day to day life. But it is a story that I have followed closely for the past few weeks and thus the longest news story I have pursued up until now. I have become well-versed on the issue and even recognize key players of the deal now in the hallways of the Capitol.
However, the main idea I want to express this week is something that one of my TA's said which stuck with me...and that is that "everybody lies". Sure, we all like to think we're honest do-gooders all of the time. But the truth is, we have all been in a position before where we felt the need to protect ourselves or somebody else, and a tiny white lie is what slipped out in order to do the job. And this week I ran into huge walls of "white lies", making my job to get the information and write the stories very difficult at times.
Whether it was representatives saying they literally couldn't spare one minute to talk to me until tomorrow (when the issue would no longer be news and I wouldn't need to talk to them, of course)...or committee chairs saying I couldn't see a copy of a bill that was to be presented to the entire Senate in a half hour...people lie. And I experienced it more this week than ever before. I suppose that is the warm welcome you receive upon entering the world of politics...but as a journalist and a reporter, you can't let that get ya down.
It is not the job of politicians, or of anyone for that matter, to make the life of a reporter easy. In fact, reporters should be realizing that off the bat, and if they don't they may be in the wrong profession. You can't care if people are going to be rude or think you're annoying, just because you're trying to get them to answer a question they say they don't have the answer to. You have to realize when those people are lying and you have to find a way to ask the question so that they will answer...or you find someone else to answer. And if nothing else, the fact that they won't answer...is your story.
Yet another week has gone by as I work to learn more about the world of politics and hopefully improve more with every story...
This week I did two stories that both covered the construction of a trading hub with China at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. On Monday, I went to a Senate hearing where a spokesperson from the private company hired by Nixon's administration to build the China hub came to present the cost-benefit model. None of the Senators seemed to be all for or all against the plan, but they said they wanted more information. They wanted to see how things like road construction and opportunity costs factored into the equation so they could get a better idea of what they were voting for or against.
Tuesday came, and so did the modification of the China hub bill. Senate President Pro-Tem Rob Mayer dropped $300 million worth of funding for the trade hub and plans were made for the Senate to meet on Wednesday to discuss the modified bill (the stripped-down version, which Phill loved to refer to as the 'China nub').
On Wednesday, I started out in the Senate, listening to the discussion between Senators arguing whether the bill should be passed or not. Senator Lembke was pretty passionate about voting against the bill, maintaining that it was just another attempt to do the same unsuccessful things we've been doing already. He also said he was nervous the bill wouldn't protect small businesses.
Senator Kevin Engal voted in favor of the bill, saying he hopes it will bring about economic development. But he did voice concerns that money from tax cuts needed to finance the trading hub may never materialize.
Senator Jason Crowell was the one who surprised me...I expected him to vote against the bill...He actually voted in favor, but not without leaving fellow Senators with a piece of advice. He said Missouri cannot be spending money anymore on things that do not promise jobs. He told Senators they need to pay attention to whether a plan is acutally going to help us, or if a developer is just telling us what we want to hear.
In the end, the bill passed, 26 in favor and 8 opposed. It was another interesting week at the Capitol and I enjoyed covering the stories on the China trading hub. However, next week is a new week and I'm excited to see what it has to bring, whether it be new stories to broaden my political horizons or a feature related to my healthcare beat...no way of knowing, but that's the beauty of reporting!
Wednesday, however, was a new day. The day before Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder had sent out a letter addressed to Republicans placing the power in their hands to decided whether he will run. The reaction of the people to Kinder's letter and whether it was gaining support or disgust seemed an interesting angle and so I pursued it. I proceeded to make over 25 phone calls trying to reach any Republican legislator I could and got nothing. I even walked to the offices of a few who were in the building and they refused to comment. Luckily, I finally got a hold of Jared Craighead, a spokesperson for Kinder, who told me he only picked up my call because he saw I'd already called so many times. Not that I was desperate or anything...But of course, half way through this phone call I happen to notice that the red recording light isn't flashing and I tell Mr. Craighead I'm going to have to call him back before rushing out into the office to find that my TA has stepped out. Long story short, more problems ensue and I end up dialing Craighead's number a third time to get the final interview. Luckily, he could not have been more gracious, and while I apologized and promised I'd never call him again, he gave me some great soundbites and my stories ended up shaping nicely. Just a day in the life I suppose...
Second week is now beginning and hopefully more interesting stories to come as special session begins and I'm hit with the reality of how little I really know about political reporting...but that's why I'm doing this, so for now I'm excited to learn and improve every day and see where this takes me!
Missouri Digital News is produced by Missouri Digital News, Inc. -- a non profit organization of current and former journalists.