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News 'Zig where others zag'

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Investigative reporter tells UD students: Find the ignored stories
Rick Tulsky of Injustice Watch

​Rick Tulsky, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, says that seeing the big picture requires looking deeper.  He launched the nonprofit website Injustice Watch to examine issues in the justice system. Photo/UD Journalism.

Look for stories where other reporters don't. Be willing to spend days or weeks on "mundane and awful" work. Aim to work for editors who give you feedback and flexibility.

That was some of the advice journalism guru Rick Tulsky, co-founder of the nonprofit website Injustice Watch, gave on March 6 to students in Dan Biddle's English 307 newswriting class at UD, and in a follow-up call with the class.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with a career spanning four decades, Tulsky said he tries to heed the advice of his favorite editor, Gene Roberts: "Zig where others zag" – look for stories in places other reporters are ignoring. He said that notion helped Roberts turn a mediocre paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, into a great one during 18 years as its top editor. That's where Tulsky won his Pulitzer.

 "Zigging" is also the guiding principle of the Chicago-based reporting website that Tulsky now helps run. Injustice Watch undertakes deep investigations of issues in the justice system that other news outlets have overlooked.

One failing of news media today, according to Tulsky, is that large stories often aren't allowed the time and focus needed to be fully researched and understood.  He said "we" – reporters and readers alike – "all suffer now that we do not have the time. We do not have the depth."

The 'mundane' can makes journalism special

For example: The only Chicago-area news outlet to scrutinize candidates for Cook County judgeships this year was Injustice Watch, Tulsky said. Such labor-intensive reporting once was a staple of local newspapers at election time.

Tulsky called "mundane" work a necessity for good journalism. Sometimes, he said, fine details reveal patterns that elude reporters on quick-hit news stories. Tulsky and his team sift those details to find areas where the justice system might be failing the public.

He also told of drama and even danger reporters can face when they take on tough stories – such as an interview, in the 1970s, with a Ku Klux Klan leader in a Mississippi motel room.

 Tulsky remembered being so focused on the interview that until his photographer nudged him, he did not notice that the two journalists were surrounded by armed men.

He recalled how the Klan leader launched into a racist, anti-Semitic diatribe that day, blaming the nation's problems on African Americans – and Jews with money. Then the Klansman said to Tulsky, who is Jewish: "We don't mean you. You're a working Jew."

A bonus for students was Tulsky's follow-up call during the last class before spring break.  Asked for examples of "mundane" work he'd done, he told of weeks he'd spent as a young Inquirer reporter camped in a legal newspaper's archives to find listings of injury lawsuits against the local transit system – and the 16 months he and a colleague at the Los Angeles Times spent reconciling court computer printouts to produce an accurate list of homicide cases.

 The first effort led to a scathing series on Philadelphia's accident-prone buses, trains and trolleys; the second, to stories exposing racial and economic bias in how Los Angeles murders were investigated.

The latter was a classic "zig:" While countless reporters were covering a celebrity murder trial – O.J. Simpson's – Tulsky and his colleague were unearthing painful truths about less-noticed murder cases.

While Tulsky's website doesn't have the resources that major newspapers have, he can brag that it has already made a dent. Its story of a black Kansas man framed for two killings by a corrupt white detective was reprised in The New York Times; its voter-friendly look at Chicago judicial candidates drew more readers than ever to Injusticewatch.org.

To student Matt McKee's follow-up questions – about  what Tulsky is investigating now and why he'd been in UD's neighborhood – the journalist  said only that he'd come east to talk with several lawyers about a possible story.

Which means another Injustice Watch "zig" may in the works.

– By Dan Biddle and his English 307 students

Story published on 4/1/2018 ; last modified on  
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​Investigative reporter Rick Tulsky visited a UD journalism class to tell students how he launched the website Injustice Watch to take a closer look at the justice system.

4/1/2018
 
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  • The Journalism Program
  • 207 Memorial Hall
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • 302-831-3870
  • journalism@udel.edu