Manjoo Post

April 20, 2010

Farhad Manjoo’s book, True Enough, places many suspicions and ideas that I had about the facts in society.  Back when we were young, our parents told us in order to find out what is going on in the world by reading a newspaper or watching the evening newscast. Ultimately, we accepted that the media was always reporting the truth and that we shouldn’t question it. I always second guess information and after I read Manjoo’s book, I received a few answers to my questions about how the media reports its facts.

Manjoo introduced the terms selective perception and selective exposure and he gave many examples of how these terms are used in the media. According to Manjoo, selective perception is when two or more people experience the same act and come away with different ideas about it. An example of this would be two people attending a concert when one person had front row tickets and the other one had bleacher seats. They both saw the concert, but they experienced it from different parts of the arena.

An example of selective perception in politics would be Bob Schieffer’s take on the war in Iraq.  Schieffer says that the Iraq war is the longest American war. It is clear that the Iraq war is not the longest war and he is proven wrong by Louis Jacobson. Jacobson is a journalist and a researcher for the St. Petersburg Times, and he presented solid facts that proved Schieffer wrong. Jacobson said that the Revolutionary War, Vietnam War, and the war in Afghanistan are longer than the war in Iraq.  Schieffer said this because he thought that the war in Iraq was the longest war, and he had sparked the attention of others. Even though, Schieffer was proven wrong, I can bet that many other people were thinking the same thing that he was thinking.

Another example of selective perception would be President Barack Obama’s claim to end income tax for senior citizens who make less than $50,000 a year. This article was published on April 15, 2009 by Angie Drobnic Holan, a researcher and reporter for Politifact.com. She asked the White House if the president was going to honor this promise and she received no response. This article was catered to the senior citizens and to people who did not support Barack Obama. Holan tried to be unbiased but she had to pick a side because of this issue that affects many people. To the Obama supporters, she is seen as a knit picker, and someone who isn’t happy with Obama’s lack of effort to keep his promise.

Manjoo used the term selective exposure along with selective perception. His definition of selective exposure is when people choose people who suit themselves. In a broad sense, selective exposure allows people to associate with people who feel the same way that they do about different issues. For example, I like am very picky about pizza and I will only go to certain pizza restaurants. I would meet other people who share similar feelings about these pizza restaurants that I frequent.

An example of selective exposure in politics would be how Democrats and Republicans differ on Barack Obama’s presidency. There was an article written by   Bill Adair, and Angie Drobnic Holan on January 29, 2010 that explained the relationship that the Republicans had with Obama. The article said that there are strained relations between them but the Republicans still sided with themselves despite of meeting to compromise.  I can bring myself into selective exposure for this because, I know that a majority of Republicans do not support Obama and it’s because of their mindset.

Another example of selective exposure would be how Governor Charlie Crist is depicted of endorsing the federal stimulus bill. This article was written by Aaron Sharockman, a staff writer for Politifact.com, on November 5, 2009. Sharockman pulled up several sources of Crist’s interviews with CNN and basically caught him in a few lies. The ending result was the Crist did in fact endorse the federal stimulus bill. The article could be viewed by Republicans as proof of Crist’s disloyalty to the Republican Party. However, Democrats would view this as a positive notion because of how they feel about the economy.  Both examples show that whether or not the subject of the articles are right or wrong, people with similar beliefs will come together on these issues.

Another term that is worth mentioning in Manjoo’s book is truth value of the word expert. According to dictionary.com, expert means a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; or authority. People tend to trust these experts and normally do not question their research. After reading this book, I have learned that Manjoo was dead on about not always trusting experts.

A good example of how experts on proven wrong would be taking a look at an article written by Angie Drobnic Holan on February 22, 2008. The article is about how experts rate both Democratic candidates’ health care plans the same. She found out that researchers from Harvard concluded that there can’t be a determined amount of money that would be saved for both candidates. I can almost guarantee that most people would have just trusted the experts and not looked at how the plans were the same.

Although, I had to force myself to read this book, I am glad that I got something out of it. These few terms that I had discussed were the validation that I needed to prove my theory. I had always thought that experts were not to be trusted and that you should always second guess everything. Selective exposure and perception are alive and well in this world, and Manjoo did a good job at pointing that out in this book.  I am sure that there were some things that I should’ve touched upon, but these terms were the ones that put the book together.

For money or drugs? Trial Post

April 14, 2010

I observed a felony trial on Tuesday April 13, 2010 at the Hillsborough County Courthouse. The presiding judge was Judge Emmett L. Battles, and the trial was about robbery and assault battery. The defendant was represented by two attorneys and the plaintiff was the state prosecutor. I arrived at the trial not long after it commenced, and already I knew that this trial was going to be interesting.

The defendant, William Patrick, was accused of robbery and assault battery against Mark Singleton. I don’t think that Singleton could afford an attorney, and in that case the state provided the representation. This case isn’t cut and dry because both parties’ witness testimonies were quite shaky. I did not witness Patrick’s testimony, but the witness’s catered to both the plaintiff and the defendant.

Singleton was on the stand when I arrived and his testimony was quite shady. The defense attorney was cross-examining him and she caught him in a few lies. “I never saw the defendant before the robbery,” Singleton said. After that statement, Singleton then tells the attorney that he saw Patrick three days before the incident. That told me that something strange was going on, and this trial was going to be a hard one for the eight jury members. One of the key points in Singleton’s testimony was that he knew that his friend, Jerome Stewart, sold marijuana to people in the neighborhood and that he didn’t keep track of his customers.

Stewart was one of the victims in the robbery and was present in the house when the suspects entered. He told the prosecutor that he was in the kitchen with Singleton when the suspects tried to kick open the front door. He said that Singleton ran toward the front door to see what was going on and he ran out the back door. The suspects had a gun and fired it at Singleton, who was trying to defend himself. Singleton was shot in his right shoulder and laid on the ground until the suspects left the house. Steward said that he was questioned by Officer Susan Bowers about 45 minutes after the incident.

Stewart says that Patrick went to his house a couple of days before the incident and he knew that Stewart sold marijuana. He says that he sold him marijuana before and Patrick knew where he had his stash. Stewart thinks that Patrick wanted more marijuana from him and he broke into his house for it. “Where’s it at? Give it up,” said the suspect when he entered Stewarts’ house. Stewart told the prosecutor that he knew Patrick by the nickname Rip, and that he then found out that the possible suspect was William Patrick.

There were several witnesses that took the stand after the trial broke for lunch; Shelby Garmin, Thomas Colon, Tanya Caranza, Mike Nelson, Officer Susan Bowers, and Tory Walden. Garmin, a crime scene technician, and Bowers were on the scene and gave some facts on what happened.  Garmin stated that she took pictures of the crime scene for evidence and swabbed a bloodlike substance from a wall and a fence. Bowers surveyed the crime scene and came into contact with Singleton before he was sent to Tampa General Hospital. She didn’t give much detail on the incident and had trouble remembering the facts. I found that very interesting and was not impressed with her testimony.

Nelson was Stewarts’ neighbor and he said that he saw the suspects hop over a fence onto Stewart’s property. He said that he saw a gun and hide from the suspects. He heard a gunshot and saw a truck pick up the suspects. Walden was Stewarts’ neighbor too and he said that he saw the suspects hop his fence onto Stewart’s property as well. He said that the suspect saw him and he ran into his house because he saw the suspect with a gun.

Colon was the officer who picked up the bullet from Singleton at Tampa General Hospital. He said that he was assigned to pick up the bullet for evidence for an ongoing investigation. Caranza was an employee for Tampa General Hospital at the time of Singleton’s stay. She said that the hospital keeps accurate records of the emergency room and that the records of Mark Singleton prove that he was shot in his right shoulder. Both Colon and Caranza gave simple and direct testimonies, and they greatly helped the prosecutor’s side of the trial.

I left after these testimonies because I thought that I had enough information to do this blog. I enjoyed observing this trial for many reasons, and I hope that this case does get resolved in a timely manner. Trial reporting is one area that I think that I may go toward in my journalism career.

Bruce B. Downs Project, public meeting 2

April 6, 2010

The second public meeting I went to was on April 1, 2010 at Tampa Palms Elementary School.  The meeting was held by Steve Valdez and, it was about the construction on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. I went to a similar public meeting two months ago about another segment in this large transit and road construction project and, Valdez held that meeting as well. The last public meeting I attended was about improvements to the overall transit system within Tampa Bay, but this meeting focused on the road reconstruction and transit improvements along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. The name of this part of the project is Segment A.

Valdez gave a visual presentation using a short video and large pictures posted around the room of what improvements are to come. He said that the purpose of this meeting was to find out what the residences of Tampa Palms thought of the improvement projects. After the video, he gave the microphone to anyone who had specific questions about the projects. The debate of this project is to either construct a six lane or eight lane roadway on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

Valdez gave some specific points on why the construction must happen in the near future. He said that the funding for the six or eight lane roadway is there and if it is approved, construction would start in the summer of 2011. Another point he made was that a rail system would be a solution to the congestion problem on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Valdez mentioned that the price of gasoline would greatly affect the funding of the road and transit project because funding comes from federal and state levels based on cents per gallon of gas.

The benefits to a six lane roadway with rapid transit in the median of the road include: minimal or no delay to construction date, transit could run at a higher speed and the walk to transit stations would be equal from destinations on either side of the road.  The only con to the 6 lane construction compared to the eight lane design would be the increase of driving time. The benefits to an eight lane roadway with bus transit mixed with regular traffic include: transit runs at the same speed as all traffic, and it has the least potential for delaying road construction. The cons to this design would be the increase driving times without mixed bus transit with regular traffic and homes and businesses would experience difficulty with access to transit.

Each design has its good and bad points but the main issue is solving a congestion problem. I listened to some concerned residents and a majority of them are in favor of the eight lane design. They believe that the eight lanes would solve some immediate problems and propel the city toward future enterprise development.   The larger picture points to the year of 2035 for the completion of this segment and for some residences, they will not see the benefits in their lifetime.  I hope that the eight lane design passes because the construction of this design points to a better future for the residences in Tampa Palms.

Transportation Hillsborough- Public Meeting

March 30, 2010

I have decided to do my first public meeting on the Hillsborough County Transportation Improvement Project. The meeting was held on February 23, 2010 and it started around 6:30 in the evening. Steve Valdez held several meetings throughout the month of February at various locations in Hillsborough County. There were several representatives from the Hart Transit System, Public Works Administration and a few citizens that spoke about the upcoming improvements.

Valdez gave a brief overview of what the transportation project would entail and allowed the public to voice their opinions on the project. He said that the Board of County Commissioners appointed a group of citizens, business, industry and civic representatives to recommend ways to improve the transportation in Hillsborough County. At first, these improvements were for the short term, but there are many long term changes that need to be made. The short term projects included a bus rapid transit and construction on intersections. Long term projects include a bus expansion and a rail system. Valdez said that there needs to be a one percent tax increase to make the long term changes that the county needs.

Mary Sheverlet was the Hart Transportation representative at the meeting and she gave out some facts on how much money Hart needs to participate in the transportation improvement project. She said that Hart needs about $500 million to expand its bus routes and create the rail system. Voters will be able to vote on the Hart bill on December’s ballet. Sheverlet says that these improvements are vital to the community because commuting will be easier on the public and it will relieve the congestion created by the current public transportation system.   Another comment she made on this topic was the amount of money Heart would take in for the improvements; $178 million a year. There were a few citizens that asked Sheverlet about the timing of this improvement and she said that the commencement would start as early as next spring.

Bob Gordon was the Public Works representative at the meeting and in my opinion; he gave the most information in favor of the improvement project. “Tampa Bay was voted the worst commuting city in the United States,” Gordon said. He said that nothing pays for itself and the county would need about $25 million to make the necessary changes. Gordon said that Hillsborough County has 7,000 miles of lanes and it is equal to the distance between Main and Los Angeles. The process of pavement preservation is basically resurfacing roads and it needs to be done about every 15 years. Gordon said that the money that will come from the bill will improve the roads, install sidewalks and start funding the light rail system. “Start by more bus services,” said Gordon. He said that if the funds were approved, the project would start in 18 months.

A majority of the meeting was very redundant but informative. I think that the transportation system needs sever improvements, and I honestly think that the public will approve the bill. Like Gordon said, “Nothing pays for itself.” All in all, it was a good experience to sit in during that meeting. I hope that these improvements become a reality rather than just speculation.

Budgets don’t have to be a pain to report

March 28, 2010

We had the privilege to have Preston Trigg come back to our class and give us a second presentation. Trigg presented a 15 page PowerPoint lecture about the importance of understanding and reporting on budgets. He made several points and gave some pointers on how to bring live to a boring budget sheet into an interesting story.

Trigg said that Florida budgets are public and must be balanced because of the state’s constitution. There are three components to a budget: revenue, expenses, and debt. The revenue is the amount of money that comes into the budget, such as taxes and fines. He said to look for major increases or decreases in the revenue section because you will most likely find your angle of your budget story. “Basically, the money that comes in is the revenue and the expenses is the money that come out,” Trigg said.

Expenses or capital will show the money that is being spent on the budget. Not much needs to be explained for this one, but the major increases and decreases need to be monitored. Operating expenses are basically the money that is needed to run a budget. For example, the cost of the employees and the utilities that are needed to run the business would be considered operating expenses. Object codes are used in most, if not, all budgets. They are there as a universal code for a function of the budget. Restricted funds basically are monies that are designated for specific expense. An example of that would be money set aside for your company’s transportation and that money only goes toward transportation.

The debt portion of the budget is the amount of money that the budget borrowed and the amount that the budget owes its debtors. Bond referendum is the term used for when the government borrows money from bonds, investors buy these bonds and the government pays them back over time with interest. Bonds can be purchased by anyone or company, but when the government borrows money, it’s a big deal. One of the reasons why common people don’t invest in bonds is because there is no guarantee when the money will be paid back to the investor.

One of the essential elements to Trigg’s presentation was is explanation of mileage. Though I thought the explanation of mileage was a bit complex, it was straight to the point. Mileage is the amount of money that people own on property taxes. It is complied by sales tax and property taxes on any given property. A mil is 1/1000 and 1 mil equals $1,000. This is an example of how mileage is calculated and the Homestead Exemption takes $50,000 off property taxes if you live in your property. This doesn’t apply to rented properties, and the local government controls mileage. Basically, mileage determines the rate of how much property tax that you will pay for your property.

I understood a good chunk of Trigg’s presentation and I found it very useful. I knew about budgets before the presentation, but it is good to have a basic outline of budgets. I know that I will have to deal with mileage one day, but calculation should be a bit easier when that time comes.

“Cause of death, come here”

March 22, 2010

Last Thursday our class visited the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office. I must say that I was kind of interested in this field trip because I wanted to see a dead body and how they died. Death has always been a mystery to me and I figured that this field trip would satisfy my curiosity.

We met Dr. Vernard Adams, the Chief Medical Examiner, in the conference room at the Medical Examiner’s Office and he gave us the basic functions of the medical examiner. The brief definition of a medical examiner is a physician that specializes in investigating violent, sudden, unsuspected, unattended or strange deaths. I would say he is more of a CSI doctor because he doesn’t deal with familiar forms of death.  Adams explained how important the Florida Statute 406.11 is to the medical examiner and how it determines what he or she can do about these unusual deaths.

Adams said that the Florida Statute 406.11 gives the medical examiner the authority to perform autopsies that pertain to the public interest. He said that all autopsies are public record except ongoing investigations. However, the death certificate is not public record and only the next of kin would be the only person to view that document.

Adams gave us some tips on what reporters can take away from the medical examiner’s office. He said that reporters can find out the cause of death and whether or not the cause of death was related to criminal activity. He told us about how the Earnhardt Act made the photos of the medical examiner not public record. It’s a shame that it took the death of a famous NASCAR driver to place a cap on private information.

One of the more interesting facts that I learned was how the cause of death can make or break your story. I like how only necessary information is available to reporters and test results such as HIV, are kept private. It was a short and sweet field trip and I walked away learning more about the after affects of death.

Clerk of Courts Post

March 4, 2010

Our class met with Clerk of Courts Pat Frank and Dana Caranante last Tuesday. Frank and Caranante gave our class a good amount of tips on how the Clerk of Courts can help us with gathering public records for potential news stories. Most of the information that was conveyed was a refresher for me because I had a fair amount of experience with the court system with a prior lawsuit. However, I did learn a couple of things from both women.

We met Frank in the jury meeting room and we discussed how the Clerk of Courts operates. She told us about jury selection and what days and times jury duty normally occurs. Frank says that Monday is the day that jury duty occurs and that people must show up or they will be in violation of a court order. “It is frustrating for judges when people don’t show up to jury duty,” Frank says. She also went into the issue of cutting back costs for the Tampa Court House. Franks says that it is important not to cut essential job duties such as clerk’s men, felony, and domestic violence personal. She says that the state budget cuts could drastically impact the operations of the court house. “If the judges don’t go to bat for us, then we are handicapped,” Frank says. She mentioned how the Clerk’s Office is in need of new software for their website and that the budget cut could affect the way we access public records. Franks says that the court house needs to accommodate the needs of the public by allowing the free access of public records. I feel that it is important to have clear access to these records because they are essential to the production of our news stories.

Caranante was in charge of the tour and she showed us the different sections of the court house. She explained that family law, civil court, felony, and traffic cases are considered public records. Each department has an area where anyone can access these documents from a computer or the desk clerk. Two departments do not allow you to access their records are child abuse or juvenile records. Those are considered sealed unless you are involved in that particular case. Caranante says that the filling fees have increased over the past two years due to the recession, but you can review documents without paying for them.

I found this visit to be informative and I did enjoy the time that I spend there. I just wish that I would have had this tour when I was in my lawsuit against my old landlord. There is so much information out there that can make reporting much more efficient and the Clerk of Courts can help you with your investigations.

Steve Andrews Post

March 2, 2010

One of the most interesting field trips that our class has gone on this semester was the NBC newstation visit last Thursday. We met with investigative reporter Steve Andrews and he showed us some clips of his work. Andrews gave us many tips on how he used research skills in the form of public records to aid his stories. He explained that a few simple life skills can make your reporting career much more pleasant and easier.

Andrews says that he is just a reporter and it is all about calling people. There is one investigative story in particular that he feels that stands out above most of his work. He did a story on the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance last November and he said that the story almost didn’t happen. He said that he almost gave up on this topic because most of the public records looked legitimate. However, he looked at the food budget and that is where he found some information that made him very suspicious. Andrews found out that the organization had done some wasteful spending and the tax payers were paying for it. He said that the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance would routinely hold meetings that would run into meal times of the day and order very expensive items. “Instead of picking up the food, they had it delivered,” Andrews said. As of right now, the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance is under investigation and may be shut down for its expensive habits. Another interesting tidbit about this story is the organization was meant to help the unemployed find jobs, but instead they spent a bunch of money feeding itself. Andrews told us that the story was a gold mind and wasted funds are a hot button for law makers. He says that the story took a life of its own and those stories are the ones that most people remember. He went over some other stories, but the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance was the one that I liked the most.

He gave the class some valuable tips on reporting such as going through all of your public records. He said that because he went through all of the public records, he was able to do that story. Andrews also says to have at least three questions prepared when you are going to interview someone and to have tenacity for your story. Another thing that Andrews pointed out was you are done when you are done. I already knew that about reporting, but some people think that reporting is a 9-5 job. All in all, I think that Steve Andrews gave one of the best presentations on what reporting entails.

Windy explains it all

February 26, 2010

What can public records do for you when you need to find information on corporate corruption? That was the question that Windy March answered for us on Tuesday. March is the longest standing reporter for the Tampa Tribune and he has been involved in many stories dealing with political and corporate corruption. He gave us some tips on how to use public records to shine light upon shady situations.

March said that it used to take him months to search public records back when he first started and now it only takes a few clicks of a mouse. He used a 15 year old story as an example of how to use public records to crack a case. March tracked down a Miami man named Jimenez who donated a large sum of money to President Bill Clinton’s campaign. The interesting fact about the donation is that the man and 20 other men like Jimenez, were quite poor and each man donated a thousand dollars. The question is why, and March found out by using the public records of the democratic campaign donations. He found out that they were being paid to donate to the political campaign. “The Jimenez case wouldn’t have been possible back when I was using a typewriter and a rotary phone.”

March said that it is hard to catch people who launder money because of the difference between hard and soft money. Hard money is money that has limits to the amount that can be donated through private people. Soft money is money that is donated through the political party itself and there are no limits to those amounts. March said to take down each name of the political contributor and find how much money they gave to the campaign. Auto track is an expensive report that most large companies have and it keeps track of how much is donated and from whom it is donated from.  He said that there are people who are hired to sift through financial campaign reports because the rules are different from one organization to another.

March shed light onto something that I never took much thought of; the political corruption of financial contributions within a party or organization. I was most intrigued by the knowledge that is out there about these financial figures. It gives me more of an interest in investigative reporting and hopefully I will use these public records for the greater good of society.

Trigg Post

February 23, 2010

Who would ever think to go to the tax collector to look up public records?  Thomas Preston Trigg is the Hillsborough County Tax Collector and he gave our class a brief presentation about how reporters can use the tax collector to lookup public real state records. He says that there are many things that you can find out just by checking the tax collector’s website.

Trigg made a PowerPoint presentation that explained the basic function of the tax collector. “There are two main functions of the tax collector: collect and distribute property tax and issue driver’s licenses.” He says that handling property taxes is the more important job than licenses. I learned that the tax collector has access to motor vehicle records but not total access.
Trigg says that all tax collectors in the state of Florida have a public website and it can be found by typing in the name of the county followed by tax.org. You can find out whether or not people paid their property taxes by typing in their name and address. If someone didn’t pay their property taxes then the word delinquent would appear on their record.  Judges are the only public figures that are exempt from having their address appear on the tax collector’s webpage.

One of the most important things that I learned from Trigg’s presentation was the Official Records Index. He says that the OR Index is a database that contains resources to locate public records. For example, if you wanted to find out if someone has a judgment against them, just type in the person’s name and it will direct you to the Clerk of Courts page. It is nice to know that reporters can go to the OR Index and knock out a few public record searches in one shot.

He says to always follow the money and it makes perfect sense.  Money often is the root of all legal issues and people most likely have a public record containing a money problem.  Trigg also says to request public records in writing because it can be your only source if you are denied access to the public records.