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News Literacy: How MTN investigates stories

How MTN investigates stories
Posted at 12:29 PM, Jan 27, 2022

HELENA — The E.W. Scripps Company, MTN’s parent company, has once again teamed up with News Literacy Foundation to help shine a light on better information consumption and sharing.

At MTN, journalistic objectivity is a core principle that every reporter is expected to follow, which is to say that every story we produce is expected to be fair, accurate and neutral in the reporting. It is not our place to say what is right or wrong, but rather present truthful information and let our viewers and reader come to their own conclusion.

In investigative journalism, our reporters will spend many hours over multiple days looking into a subject.

In January, Marian Davidson investigated multi-level marketing (MLM) companies in Montana. The Montana State Auditor, Commissioner of Securities and Insurance (CSI) offered an amnesty program in November for MLMs that were not registered with the state.

Despite amnesty period, unregistered MLMs still operate in Montana

“Part of Journalism is holding people accountable, holding corporations accountable and I knew that here in Montana there is a law that says multilevel marketing companies have to be registered and there was a big push recently to get more companies registered,” said Davidson.

19 MLM companies took advantage of the program, which Davidson says made her want to see if there were any others that had not registered. Through her investigation, she found a number of MLMs that had not registered with the state, such as LuLaRoe and DoTerra.

“What’s important about that, it might not seem like a big deal, is that multi-level marketing there are a lot of people involved in it in Montana,” explained Davidson. “The only way to make sure these companies are doing right by the people that work for them is having them register with the state. It’s an important part of making sure these companies are being held to account, following the law and aren’t pyramid schemes that are illegal.”

Marian reached out to the unregistered companies to give them the opportunity to explain their perspective of the situation before running the story. LuLaRoe did respond saying they were working file with the state, but DoTerra did not.

It’s important for journalists to investigate not just the action, but the reason behind the action to provide a more complete picture of the subject we’re covering.

This is critically important when covering politics. No matter the party, politicians and political groups want to establish their narrative for any policy or legislation. As journalists, we look into their rationale and who benefits or is at a detriment as a result.

One example of this is are changes to how State District and Montana Supreme Court judges are appointed.

For decades Montana used a Judicial Nominating Commission to determine candidates for open judge positions. The governor appointed four members of the commission; the Supreme Court appointed the other three, including the chair, who was a district judge.

After allegations by one party of a biased Montana judicial system, significant changes were made to Montana law last year that allowed the Governor to directly appoint judges rather than having to choose from candidates that were nominated by the commission.

Part 1: Bullock appointees shape Montana’s judiciary – but, it’s a diverse lot

“One of the underlying premises of this rationale is that Steve Bullock, the Democratic governor for the previous eight years, had stacked the courts with liberal judges.

I looked at that and said ‘Okay, is that really true?’” said MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison.

Bullock appointed 24 of Montana’s 49 state district judges during his eight years as governor, two Supreme Court justices and the state Workers’ Compensation Court judge, twice. All but two of these judges survived confirmation or re-election and are still on the bench.

“I looked up every single justice as to their background, what their job was before they got appointed as judge and then I also talked to the people that helped select them,” explained Dennison. “I talked to the chair of the nomination commission, a couple judges, one who was appointed by Bullock and one who wasn’t, about the whole discussion. And this is how we determine who are these people and what we found out was, the allegation was they were all a bunch of trial lawyers, well that wasn’t the case.”

No two stories are alike and each requires its own level of verification and research. Covering a street being closed for maintenance may only take a few minutes to produce, while accurately informing the public about the implementation of recreational marijuana in the state may take countless hours over a year to fully report.

We work diligently for every story that airs on television or is posted to our website to ensure it is accurate and fair. But we’re human, sometimes we make a mistake or new information comes to light after a story has run.

When that happens, we promptly run a correction and clearly identify online what has been changed in the story and why. In doing this, we hold ourselves to the same accountability as the individuals in power we report on.