It started with an e-mail just past midnight Nov. 3 and ended with a Nov. 12 story on the Metro front of the New York Times. But what happened in between for Damiano Beltrami was a classic case of a good story in the hands of a good reporter and editor (and good teachers, it turns out).
But let’s start at the beginning. At 12:02 a.m., Nov. 3, Andy Newman of the Times’ Local staff asked four reporters by e-mail whether they’d be interested in a story in which the DA’s office confirmed an armed robbery suspect’s alibi that he was posting on Facebook in Harlem at the time when the crime occurred in Brooklyn. Even though busy with his capstone and other CUNY work, Damiano said he was fascinated. A bit later, Newman said the story was his.
First lesson: Raise your hand.
Damiano picked up a camera at school and headed to Harlem where he interviewed the now-free Rodney Bradford (he’d spent 12 days at Rikers Island jail), his father and step-mom. They all said Rodney had been in Harlem at the time of the crime and used his dad’s computer to post to Facebook. He took down their stories, shot pictures of Bradford at his dad’s computer and a screen-shot of his Facebook page.
Now what, Damiano asked himself. He felt he needed an expert to put what happened in a larger context. After tirelessly calling law professors at Columbia and NYU, he couldn’t find anyone who had anything to say about this intersection of social media and the law.
Mary Ann Giordano, the editor of The Local, pushed Damiano to keep trying. He spent most of a Saturday night searching Lexis-Nexis and Factiva (“social networking and law”) until he came up with John Browning, a Dallas lawyer who’d written articles on the topic. Damiano e-mailed Browning. Bingo! The next day, Browning responded, and gave Damiano examples of how social networks had been used in both criminal and civil matters. But this was the first time, the lawyer said, he’d heard about Facebook being used as an alibi.
Giordano pushed Damiano to get another expert who might not agree with the DA’s handling of the case. Damiano called almost everyone on the faculty in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He made himself such a presence that a frustrated receptionist finally put him on hold and found a professor eating in the cafeteria.
Joseph Pellini provided Damiano with some great quotes suggesting it wasn’t hard to create a Facebook post that could be traced to another computer. (That may be a whole other story; after Damiano’s story was posted on The Local, techies filled three pages of comments about all the possibilities.)
Finally, Damiano was ready to put together his story, along with quotes from Bradford’s lawyer. But Giordano wasn’t through with him. She sat down with his copy, and used a yellow highlighter to note all the fact-checking she wanted, including verification of everything from the Dallas lawyer. Damiano couldn’t immediately contact Browning so it was back to searching Lexis and Factiva, and employing every stratagem he learned from research professors Barbara Gray and Anne Mintz. He verified everything and learned he’d misspelled the first name of one of the victims in the armed robbery case.
Lesson learned: Even if you only have five more minutes, you should check one more time. You have to make those calls if you want to report at a higher level. Keep on harassing people until you get the other side, more information and better anecdotes.
During the whole process, Damiano said he appreciated the lessons he learned from Craft professors Dody Tsiantar and Rebecca Leung (I) and Indrani Sen and Jan Simpson (II). They’d drilled into him the importance of making sure all the names in his stories were correct, and to always include a source contact list with phone numbers. “It shows that you are really serious about what you’re doing,” Damiano said.
Damiano filed his story on The Local, and then a shorter, edited version appeared on the Metro front. But in today’s media world, a story never really ends. The story was picked up by AP and The Huffington Post, and several tech sites. It created a flashfire of comments and conversation across the Internet.
“News is the kindling for conversation,” said Jim Schachter, head of the Times digital operation, at CUNY’s New Business Models for (Local) News conference last week.
We’d add that reporting like Damiano’s is the kindling for the kind of superior journalism that will always get talked about, whatever its format.