Are you ready? Digging into breaking news

By Mark Sommerhauser

When he arrived in Florida to report on the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Serge Kovaleski admits he was playing catch-up.

Kovaleski, a reporter for the New York Times, was called and asked to travel from Oregon to Florida to report on the shooting, then emerging as a national story. When he got the call, Kovaleski says he knew little about Martin or the shooting.

But Kovaleski got his bearings in a hurry. After arriving in Florida, Kovaleski began reporting what would evolve into two in-depth pieces on the Martin shooting, including an investigation that detailed crucial missteps by local police in the case.

Kovaleski joined Anthony Capaccio, a defense reporter for Bloomberg News, to lead Friday’s panel, “Are you ready? Digging into breaking news,” at the 2012 Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference in Boston.

Kovaleski said reporters must think creatively to gain access to key sources after a big breaking news event. He said one technique is to find trusted intermediaries to convince those key figures - such as suspects, victims or law enforcement officials, or their loved ones - to grant interviews. 

Kovaleski said this technique helped him land interviews with the Sanford, Fla. police chief and with the father of George Zimmerman, who’s been charged with second-degree murder in the case.

“If I had just gone through the normal channels … none of this would have happened,” Kovaleski said. “But it was people who could actually talk sense to them, and convince them that it was actually worth their while to talk to me.”

Capaccio played a lead role in Bloomberg’s coverage of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, accused by the U.S. Army of the killing of 16 Afghan civilians in March.

Capaccio said it’s important to build contact lists of key players in military agencies so it’s clear who to call when news breaks. Trying to get that information after a major event is time-consuming and often impossible, he said.

Capaccio offered another important tip: Move extra-fast to pull information off the Web about people of interest in a breaking news event. Often, such information will be scrubbed from web pages hours after the news breaks.

In the Bales case, Capaccio said reporters scoured the Web and found that Bales’ wife Kari had a blog. Reporters used screen shots to capture content on the blog in anticipation of it being pulled off the Web, which it later was.

Reporters for the Seattle Times also used the website to search for postings about Bales on Facebook and other sites, according to a handout provided by Capaccio. That led them to an Army buddy of Bales who had posted pictures and remembrances of him.