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DEAR READER: Leaves were falling when the MU substance violations story began

Friday, April 8, 2011 | 1:11 p.m. CDT; updated 11:29 a.m. CDT, Saturday, April 9, 2011

Dear Reader,

Six months and reams of data can leave a reporter tired, frustrated and generally dazed.

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In October, Michelle Markelz began pursuing a story on alcohol and drug violations at MU.

She finished Thursday.

Markelz approached me midafternoon, armed with a sly smile and the need for tintinnabulations.

I told her to grab any noisemaker at hand.

She chose the brass cowbell, launched into the newsroom, and pumped her arm.

“It’s over,” she cried. “It’s finally over.”

I’m not sure if it was euphoria or just plain relief.

Here’s why:

It took three months to get the records. From October to December a series of e-mails passed between Markelz and Kathy Miller, custodian of records for the University of Missouri system.

(I wrote to you earlier about those negotiations. The folks at Spot.Us helped the Missourian raise $100 overnight to pay for the data, and the university reduced the actual cost to $50 – so there’s money in the bank for the next records request.)

Markelz received the data in late January. This student-journalist’s reporting class had ended in December. She wouldn’t let go of the story though.

It took a month to decipher the records. Data sets from four agencies. Three thousand PDF pages from the FBI alone. More than 5,000 cases from MU’s Department of Residential Life.

Markelz and assistant city editor Pat Sweet needed to make sense of it all. They had to figure out the “dirty data,” such as cases that were counted twice.

Think of a ball of fishing line, all knotted up at the end of your rod.

Along the way, the premise of her story changed.

Markelz began by wondering why substance violations doubled at MU between 2008 and 2009.

In the end, the data couldn’t provide an answer. Officials at Residential Life didn’t know. MU police couldn’t posit causality. There had been no extraordinary training from one year to the next on sniffing out liquor or pot.

This was an important moment. It’s hard to let go of an unanswered question, especially when a reporter puts in so much time. But she had to let go.

Another curious trend emerged in the data. Men were nearly twice as likely as women to be cited for drug and alcohol violations in residence halls. They were 3 1/2 times more likely to be arrested.

It would be a long journey between those facts and the story that ran Friday. But Markelz was well on her way.

Persistence paid off.

Good journalism often takes a bit of a stubborn streak and a considerable amount of time and sweat.

A cowbell doesn’t hurt, either.

Tom


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