Student journalist Amanda Camp was about to walk into the local pizza place to interview a 19-year-old man who was just released from prison.
She was nervous to confront one of the men accused of breaking into her school and stealing computers, but wanted to nail the story for her student newspaper, Panther Prints.
Camp got the man’s name and mug shot by accessing public records from the police department. After poring over documents, she wanted an in-person interview to add depth to the story.
When she entered Rumi’s Pizza where the suspect worked, he was the first person she saw. His eyes focused on her pen and reporter’s notebook. He actually smiled. He knew she was not there for a slice.
Camp smiled back.
“That’s one of the most important things — to make your interviewee feels as comfortable as possible, especially in such a delicate story as that one was,” Camp said in an e-mail. “In between phone calls from customers, I spoke with him about what had happened and why he did it.”
She asked him about the November 2005 burglary at Duncanville High School in Duncanville, Texas, where two computers, one mouse, one keyboard, a network box and one diet Coke were stolen from a computer classroom after hours.
He did admit to the crime, but did not say why he and his buddy broke into the school. Throughout phone conversations that night, he repeatedly asked Camp not to write the story.
The former student, who had just posted bond after being charged with the theft, was not thrilled a high school reporter tracked him down.
But Camp got a good story.
After the article was printed, Camp said she received messages from the suspect’s friends threatening to beat her up. Despite the threats, she never regretted writing the story.
“I was confident that I did the right thing because our student body needed to know what happened,” she said.
The interview was just a piece of the story. When she started her research, she knew she would have to delve into the public records available to her. Without accessing records, the story would have lacked substantiated facts, Camp said.
When Camp first heard about the theft, she contacted the police department and managed to obtain numerous documents available to the public, such as an arrest warrant, mug shots, eyewitness reports and physical evidence reports.
“[Without using public records] we wouldn’t have had mug shots or confessions. [Our story] would have been really small and uninformative,” Camp said.
One high school journalism expert agreed that public records are a resource that can be crucial for nailing a great story, but many high school reporters do not take advantage of public records often enough.
“It’s simply a matter of understanding your basic rights and how useful [public records are] in researching and telling stories. It’s about being able to do the type of stories that go below the surface,” said Diana Mitsu Klos, senior project director at the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
A royal fraud
The diligence of a high school newspaper staff in Minnesota led not only to a complete crime story, but also to the arrest and conviction of a sex offender.
In December 2005, a man calling himself Caspian James Crichton-Stuart IV, the Fifth Duke of Cleveland, began visiting Stillwater Area High School in Minnesota telling students and staff he was considering transferring to the school. He said he was British nobility and claimed to know Prince Harry and even said Princess Diana babysat him.
Student journalists at Stillwater’s student newspaper, the Pony Express, knew they had a hot story on their hands. According to Pony Express adviser Rachel Steil, while they will deny it now, most students and staff truly believed a real 17-year-old British Duke was considering attending the school.
But after staff members interviewed the Duke about his royal exploits, reporters started to get suspicious of his outlandish tales. He told them he knew celebrities such as Josh Hartnett, Jesse McCartney and Hilary Duff. He presented reporters with a business card bearing the name “Duke Cleveland” and a crest featuring a lion and a unicorn. During that interview, his spot-on British accent did not hold up.
“His accent started to falter, and he became agitated,” co-editor Karlee Weinmann told the Pioneer Press, a local paper.
After the interview, the Duke bestowed “royal” papers on the staff demanding he have the chance to read the article before it was printed. And he wanted to be referred to exclusively as “His Grace” or “Your Grace.” Steil said that letter was full of spelling errors, which further cast a shadow on the Duke’s wild stories.
The students and their adviser investigated the Duke, first using Web sites such as Wikipeida.org, MySpace.com and NationMaster.com. A Wikipedia entry said the man who called himself the Duke was really Joshua Adam Gardner. His MySpace profile was filled with “incriminating, in-your-face sexual, vulgar” material, according to Steil. And a search on NationMaster, a massive online database, revealed the 17-year-old Duke was really 22.
Next, they looked at the National Sex Offender Registry and discovered Gardner was convicted on fourth-degree sexual assault in 2003 for having sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend. Then, Steil placed a few calls to the British Embassy to confirm that there is no such person as the “Duke of Cleveland.”
The Pony Express investigation led to the arrest of Gardner for violating parole and on April 17 he was sentenced to 21 months in prison.
“Thanks to the courage of the children at Stillwater High School who did their research, they helped us catch this guy,” said Winona County Attorney Chuck MacLean.
Student journalists at Duncanville and Stillwater could have opted to write stories without spending the time and energy to delve through public records.
But without using public records, student reporters can miss out on a valuable opportunity to benefit their readers by provided a more exhaustive story.
“The biggest disadvantage [of not using public records] is you’re not telling a full, complete, factually driven story,” Mitsu Klos said. “In general, student are ill-served when they get these small bites of information when they don’t see what’s on the plate.”