Friday, February 13, 2009

REPORTER BLOG: Sensitive Subjects

Nicole DeChant

“You know how in the sex offender story, most of the offenders listed are from Nelsonville? Well your assignment is to go and try to talk to one of them to get an interview”

These are the words that came out of my professor’s mouth last week when I was given my reporting assignment. All I kept thinking in my head was, “this is going to be very difficult, awkward and uncomfortable.” But at least my web reporter Josh Mei would be coming with me, so I was glad that I wouldn’t be alone.

So I thought that perhaps I should call the Nelsonville police chief to see if I could set up an interview with him. I called and he wasn’t there and I told the officer on the phone what I wanted to interview him about. Oddly enough, the officer had no idea what I was talking about. Apparently they had not received the press release.

A Little Background Information
The Athens County Prosecutor Dave Warren sent out a press release on Wednesday, February 4th stating that there were 10 registered sex offenders in the county that lived within 1,000 feet of a school zone. Not long after this press release, one of the offenders was taken off the list because it was his work address, not his home address that was listed. It turns out that 5 of the listed offenders lived in Nelsonville, and Warren had given them until the following Monday to move out.

Where Do We Start?
Josh and I decided that the best time to try to get a hold of one of the offenders would be on Saturday because it was more likely that people wouldn’t be at work. Also, if they were given until Monday to move out then they would probably be trying to move their stuff out over the weekend. So I showed up at Josh’s place to pick him up and reporter Tony Rawlings was there. He thought it was an interesting story and decided he wanted to come along for the ride and offer me “extra protection.” I laughed at that.

Hello? Is Anyone Here?
The first place we decided to go was the Nelsonville Police Department to see if we could get an interview with an officer. I wanted to ask them how much they knew about the situation and how they were planning on making sure these people have left their homes. Unfortunately, no one was even at the police department. We walked in and rang the bell for service and there wasn’t a single sign of life. We had to go back and use the lobby phone to try and get a hold of someone.

A firefighter appeared out of the garage and told me a different number to dial on the phone to get a hold of dispatch so they could send an officer back. However, it still scared me when the dispatcher said “911 what’s your emergency?” I’ve never called 911 before so it freaked me out for a second before I could say that I was from Athens MidDay News and I wanted to speak to an officer.

After waiting for about 15 minutes, naturally the officer showed up to tell us in less than 30 seconds that he didn’t have anything for us. He said, “The only thing I know about this story is what I’ve read in the same newspapers that you have read. Nelsonville Police Department has nothing to do with this so you need to speak to Dave Warren.” I was questioning in my head why the police department wasn’t at least informed or aware of the situation. This did not seem right. And now I’m angry because I don’t have an interview with an official and I was going to have to find one!

Where on Earth is this Place?
Josh, Tony and I continued on with our investigation by tracking down the addresses of the homes listed, which proved to be more difficult than we thought. We went down a street and noticed that it was almost as if the house was missing. There was the number before it and the number after it, but no such house in between where we thought it would be. Ok, let’s try another street.

We drove along, following as the numbers went higher and higher. We were getting closer and then… a hill of pure mud. The house definitely had to be up there. My tiny car definitely would not make it up there unless it magically sprouted giant tires. Moving right along to the next house and FINALLY we got it. So we started taping the neighborhood and the house. I was nervous to knock on the front door, and then I realized it was impossible to reach the front door. The person had a locked gate, not to mention the most random items collected on the front porch and entirely blocking the entrance way. The only other way I could see a person entering the home was through the garage, and I wasn’t about to go opening garage doors.

Access Denied
Across the street was a house with toys in the front yard. Perfect! I wonder if this person knows that a sex offender lives across the street from their children. This could make a great interview just as long as I go about it in the right way. I knocked on the door. It turns out that the woman was surprised about the information I was giving her, so I thought it was going great. NOPE. It turns out that the woman was related to someone on Nelsonville City Council so she didn’t want to comment.

One House Left, One Brand New Story
The last house we went to turned our story all around. First of all, we noticed that there were children’s toys all over the yard. If this person was a sex offender, something in me was telling that this couldn’t be right. I noticed a woman sitting on the front porch in the house next door, so I asked her if she knew anything about the person who lived there. I showed her my copy of the press release and she seemed very surprised. She said, “I haven’t lived in Nelsonville for over 10 years. I grew up here but I’m just here visiting my brother, this is his house. I can’t remember if that’s the same guy living over there but I know said that the people that live there have kids, and I think grandkids too cause I’ve seen them running around the yard.” She then told me that the people across the street from the house had children too and perhaps I could try talking to them.

So I went across the street and talked to another neighbor. I showed her the press release and the picture in the paper and she stated clearly, “That’s not him.” I asked her why the same last name was on the mailbox and she had no idea, but she definitely knew that it wasn’t him and his first name was different. We both thought that perhaps it was a relative, but we weren’t sure. I thought that I had finally found my perfect interview, but then the woman told me that she refused to speak on camera. She had some personal reasons for not commenting on the story, and she used to work in an Athens County government office and so she felt she shouldn’t. But she took my number and told me she would call me when the man across the street came home and when she had the chance to talk to him.

In the Mean Time…
Now Josh, Tony and I had all of this great information and not a single interview. So we drove to Nelsonville-York High School. Luckily, there were some basketball games taking place, so we had the chance to talk to a parent. What I did like about her interview was that she wasn’t surprised or upset at all about the sex offender story, and in fact she was very well informed about the situation. She said that she as well as other parents often check the sex offender websites.

Our interview with Nelsonville parent Debbie Cox.

Anxiously Awaiting…
On Sunday I finally received a phone call from the woman in Nelsonville. She said she was with her neighbors at the moment and they wanted to talk to me. I spoke to the man’s wife and she said she was upset that I was talking to her neighbors about the situation. I asked her some questions and it turns out that the man living in that house was the brother of the sex offender, and the sex offender himself was living in Marietta. I tried to set up an interview with them so that they could tell their side of the story and clear the air that they are not the house of a registered sex offender. The woman said she absolutely did not want to be on camera, but would consider giving a sound bite. In the end, she decided that she did not want to be interviewed at all. This baffled me. Why wouldn’t anyone want their side of the story to be told if people are mislabeling their home as that of a sex offender?

Last Minute Everything
Now I was panicked and scrambling. Here I had this great angle to the story and only one interview that had nothing to do with it. I called my professor and explained the situation. I then tried to set up interviews with the Athens County Sheriff’s department and Dave Warren, but there was no luck. It was now Sunday night and I didn’t have much to turn in for my story on Monday morning.

Breaking News
Monday morning arrived and so did some new information. On top of the 2 mistakes that the Athens County Prosecutor's office had already made by listing a work address and then listing the address of a brother of an offender, now they added a new one. It turns out that all of the offenders that they listed in Nelsonville did NOT live within 1,000 feet of a school. It was a piece of property that used to belong to the schools but it was sold and the selling of the land was not in city records. We still needed another interview with an official, so reporter Megan Gorey went out that morning and talked to Athens County auditor Jill Thompson.

Athens County Auditor Jill Thompson explains why there were so many mistakes.

This is what we finally decided to turn our story into, even though it wasn’t the story that I really wanted to cover. Here is the coverage in Josh Mei’s web story.

No comments: