Five Questions For News Journal Reporter Nichole Dobo, On Digging Online, Tough Interviews, And Being Prepared
Nichole Dobo, education reporter for the (Del.) News Journal, broke big news this week when she determined a charter school principal was claiming academic credentials that hadn’t been earned from an accredited institution. Dobo spoke with EWA about computer-assisted reporting, preparing for tough interviews, and how reaching out to colleagues can help.
1, When you first learned there might be problems with the principal’s resume, what were you expecting to find?
When I first heard there might be a problem I was in touch with a board member who passed along the school leader’s resume to me. The resume from the school board member said the school leader had a Ph.D. in organizational leadership from the University of Phoenix. This immediately raised some questions because the organizational leadership program at the university is a doctor of management (DM) program. A university spokeswoman confirmed to me that she had not finished the doctor of management program.
By this point, I was still going back and forth with the school leader trying to get her to tell me where she earned her Ph.D. In the meantime, I searched online and found her LinkedIn profile, which matched what the school board member told me with the Phoenix Ph.D. I thought that was going to be the story.
But then the school leader named Westfield University as where she earned a Ph.D. I asked her if she was referring to Westfield State in Massachusetts. She said she wasn’t, and she gave me www.westfield-university.com as the school’s website. I checked it out and had some big questions.
2. How did you prepare for the difficult interview in which you confronted the principal with the significant evidence you had accumulated?
I did tons of research in advance of the interview. The EWA listserv was a huge help to me. I couldn’t find anything in about Westfield besides the odd-looking webpage. There was nothing in Nexis, Google, or the U.S. Department of Education. I had my suspicions, but I need more than that. I posted the link to the listserv because I wanted to tap into the knowledge. If someone – anyone! — had heard of them, I wanted to know.
The school leader wanted questions in advance, but of course I refused. But this wasn’t about a “gotcha” moment. I wanted her to give me information and tell me her side. Before the interview I told her I had not been able to reach anyone at the school, so she knew I was raising serious concerns for days before the interview took place.
3. How important were computer-assisted reporting skills to working this story, and did you learn or use any interesting techniques you could share?
One of the coolest reporting tools that I learned — though the EWA listserv — was Tineye.com. That’s what led to the revelation that the Westfield University president photo was a Getty stock photo and the building photo was from Virginia Tech. Another trick was looking at the source code behind Westfield-Univesrity.com (right click on any webpage, then hit “view page source”). Interestingly, Westfield’s website included code that told Google’s web bots not to crawl and index the page. Also, the code behind the page included this: nluedu.org. I went to that website and it was a copy of the Westfield website. What likely happened was someone creating the Westfield page used the code from nluedu.org and in a few places mistakenly left in the information about nluedu.org. Another big find was examining closely the emails that were bouncing back from Westfield to me. There were clues (the email bounce-back address) there that led me to College Degree Fast.
4. What’s been the fallout from your reporting?
The websites for Westfield and College-Degree-Fast.com were no longer operational one day after the report came out. And the phone number for College Degree Fast stopped working, too. The school board put out a statement Monday saying they were concerned, but indicated they had confidence in the school leader. The statement was sent out by the board vice president (the president quit a month earlier). The vice president also happens to be a friend of the school leader.
The school board met Thursday and decided that they are going to wait to vote on the contract until they can get a full board seated next month. Several parents at the meeting said they didn’t care where her degree is from, and that she’s done a good job otherwise. When readers ask me what I think about the situation, I tell them it’s my job to provide the information. What people do with it is up to them.
5. What advice would you have for other reporters who might have to tackle a similar situation?
Reporting these kinds of stories has a lot in common with the scientific method. You think about all the places where you can gather information and then you test that information to verify the accuracy of it. This particular story was very research intensive. And, I know what I am about to say isn’t terribly original advice, but sometimes you have to refuse to give up. The truth matters.
This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.