“Journalists need to be persistent:” How to build a story out of “no comment” comments

A week or so, a media adviser posted a question about an unfortunate and yet frequent reporting problem:

Our students are getting stonewalled trying to get information from our (private school) administration about a fraternity’s suspension. Is there a way to turn the tight-lippedness into a story?

Sources often assume that if they don’t comment on a story or in other ways avoid talking about a topic, the story will go away. I often refer to this as “Ostrich Syndrome,” which is named after the giant birds that stick their heads in the sand when they are scared. The idea here is that the problem doesn’t go away, but the bird can’t see the crisis and hopes ignoring it will somehow make it better.

In an answer to the adviser’s question, I reached out to a former student who once built an entire story out of nothing but “no comment” comments. Alex Nemec, now a general-assignment reporter with the Oconomowoc Enterprise, matched wits against a system meant to tell him nothing in hopes of making sure he could tell students at UW-Oshkosh that something was going on.

Nemec’s story, titled “The Curious Case of Willis Hagen,” is just one part of a reporting experience that has led to a yearlong court battle over open records. Even though he STILL has no idea what led to a professor being removed from a classroom during the middle of an instructional period, he said the overall experience has been worth the time and trouble.

The story started off like most of them do: A tip from somebody who knows somebody.

“I heard about the story from my managing editor, who told him that his friend said his professor got pulled out of class,” Nemec said. “That was the only tip I had. I followed up with him and he didn’t really give me anything else of substance beside he still wasn’t back and they had a long-term sub.”

Nemec said he figured out which course it was and then waited for the substitute instructor after class.

“I asked if she knew were Professor Hagen was, because she clearly wasn’t him,” he said.  “She said something along the lines of she didn’t think he would be coming back anytime soon and that she was filling in for him. That was sort of my first big piece of information in the story. I asked her why, half playing the role of dumb student and half playing the role of clueless reporter. She said she didn’t know too much about it, but it seemed like he did something pretty serious and that he wouldn’t be back anytime soon. That was sort of my first step in the story. If the sub says he isn’t coming back anytime soon, I’m going to assume she is telling the truth because she is expecting to get the paycheck the rest of the semester.”

After that, Nemec went to the College of Business to see if anyone in the hierarchy there would talk to him. He approached multiple administrators and said he got “shot down” repeatedly.

“Each time I went there and asked questions, I was met with no comments or just general non-answers,” he said. “It was incredibly frustrating. In addition, to me, the associate dean gave me a vibe of incredible disrespect.”

With nothing else to go on, Nemec figured he’d ask Hagen himself why wasn’t teaching his classes. Hagen’s office appeared to be packed up, his office phone went unanswered and his email bounced back, so Nemec decided to take a drive.

“I found his house in the White Pages and drove the five minutes from campus to his house,” he said. “My heart was pounding when I walked up to his door and knocked on it. He had a piece of paper with two of the first 10 constitutional amendments (taped to the door)… By this point my heart was going to come out of my chest. Sure enough, he answered the door and I was hit with a huge blast of smoke from the house. I asked if he was who I thought he was and he said yes and asked who I was. I introduced myself as a reporter from The A-T and was greeted with door slammed in my face.”

With that, Nemec said he realized he wouldn’t have the “expansive exposé ” he hoped he would find. He even wondered if he had a story. However, once we started talking about it, he realized that he could tell a story by just telling people what he actually knew.

  • Two students confirmed how the professor had been removed from the classroom shortly after a lecture began.
  • A long-term sub had taken over the professor’s class and that sub said she expected the professor to be gone for a long time.
  • The COB dean refused to comment on the issue because it was “a personnel matter.”
  • An open records request for information on this professor was denied due to an active investigation. (On a lark, Nemec requested police reports pertaining to the professor, having no idea if any existed. That request was rejected, saying they are part of an ongoing investigation, thus indicating these things actually exist.)
  • His office name plate was gone, his office had stuff boxed up in it, his email bounced back and his phone rang constantly without UW voicemail or an answering machine to pick it up.
  • Hagen himself said “I would rather not say” why he wasn’t teaching his class before shutting the door on Nemec.

It wasn’t what he wanted, but it wasn’t “nothing,” either.

“Building a story from a slew of no-comments is pretty hard, but that essentially was the story,” he said. “I had the facts, which were, Hagen was pulled out of class, he was still an employee and there was an open investigation according to the open records request… To piece it together, I just took everything I had, which in all reality was about six facts, and just made it into a short article. But the short article, in my opinion, was pretty damning in that the University or College of Business were trying to keep this under wraps.”

Nemec said he didn’t know what kind of an impact his story had, but it did prompt him to push for more records. The university had planned to release documents pertaining to closed investigations related to Hagen, but Hagen sued to prevent their release. After a judge initially ruled in favor of release, Hagen appealed. The case has been ongoing for more than a year and Nemec has kept up with it, even though he has since graduated.

“Journalists need to be persistent,” he said. “If you’re a journalist and not willing to be persistent you’ll never be worth your salt as one.”

The whole process, he said, has been a real learning experience about how to make something out of nothing when he knows a story exists.

“What I’ve learned in my reporting, is that if someone is slamming a door in your face, they have something to hide and you’ve got yourself a story if you can follow it,” he said. “If you get enough doors slammed in your face relating to the same story, that is the story… Don’t get down on yourself for getting no comments, no comments are good if you get enough of them and have some facts to supplement them.”

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