For this Q & A, I chose to conduct a phone interview with Les Zaitz, Senior Investigative Reporter for The Oregonian, who specializes in the correctional system beat. Zaitz has reported at numerous correctional facilities in Oregon, and several of his articles have appeared on the front page of The Oregonian. Here are the questions and Zaitz’s responses.
1. How long have you been on this beat?
I’ve been a reporter in Oregon for over 40 years now and I started the correctional system beat approximately 2 years ago. I cover all the prisons in the State of Oregon.
2. What are some of the challenges that arise from the nature of this beat?
Well, you have roughly 14,000 potential sources for this beat, all of the inmates. You can’t simply walk up to to the front door and ask questions. Some inmates can be reached by telephone, and some even have access to email, but in most cases, you have to either be approved by the Superintendent, or go through the general visitor approval process, which can take a long time. Essentially, you have 14* venues in which inmates are spread across.
*Oregon has a total of 14 state run prisons. This is what Zaitz is referring to.
3.What is the intrinsic benefit of working on this beat?
This beat is a high profile beat. Oregonians care a lot about their safety and have always had a large interest in where their money is being spent. It’s a popular topic that readers want to read about. This beat affects every reader for The Oregonian.
4. Do you have any advice for an up-and-coming reporter interested in covering this beat?
Like any beat, you need to learn the prison system: the prisons, inmates, administration, and the financing because you really need to know where the money is coming from and where it’s going. You need to spend a lot of time talking to the pros, just like you’re doing now. I usually ask bureaucrats, “What’s on top of your desk today?” The thing that’s on the top is the thing I’m going to report on.
5. What’s a story you’re most proud of and why?
I think it was last May, I wrote a story on the abuse of inmates at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. It spoke to the inmates who didn’t have a voice, something that doesn’t happen often. We put it on the front page and it’s had a strong impact to our readers.
6. What’s a general difficulty for an investigative reporter that you work at every day to overcome?
The biggest difficulty for any investigative reporter is finding things that people want to keep hidden. You have to get people to talk, find the right documents, and explain it very well. I spend a lot of my time trying to find the things that people want to keep hidden. These things can be really difficult at times, which separates the good from the bad investigative reporters.
7. Do you have any additional comments that you would like to share?
I come to the University of Oregon often to talk to classes. Last fall, I spoke to four classes about accuracy as a reporter. At the end of each day, what’s extremely important is to be fair. Reporters must be fair and balanced about the people, institutions and the things they report on. That’s especially important for this beat because of the nature of the topics covered. Accuracy is very important to representing both sides of the story, which is why learning all the sides of a beat increases your ability to write accurately.
If you’re interested in this kind of beat, go out there and talk to people about this subject. As I said, learn all the aspects of the beat, and that will give you an edge when you pursue graduate and pursue a career.
Zaitz shared insightful tips for an upcoming journalist. He explained the importance of learning every aspect of your beat, so your stories will accurately represent both sides of the story. I learned copious amounts of information which I hope to use later in my career as a journalist.