EXPOSÉ: America's Investigative Reports
EXPOSÉ 2008 Season
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Covering Aviation Security
(From the IRE Resource Center)*

1. Know your airport. If you're a regional reporter responsible for covering security at a local airport, know the place. Get a tour from the security director. Hang out. Find an aviation security expert -- not affiliated with TSA -- to walk you through the place.

2. Source the airport police department. Some airport police have worked there long before the TSA showed up. Some of them resent the federal government coming in and redoing the place. That makes them potentially good sources.

3. Meet the Federal Security Director. This is the head of security at the airport. He or she makes many of the crucial calls, such as when to shut down a terminal. What are this person's credentials? What does this person know about aviation security?

4. Develop sources among screeners. Many screeners are good people who were drawn to the job because they wanted to serve their country. But good people or not, some just aren't very good at what they do. And the ones that are very good worry about the inconsistent security standards. The best way to meet screeners is to ride the shuttle bus. Most park in lots far from the terminal and need to ride the buses in.

5. Develop sources among air marshals. Air Marshal Forum, a Web site that some air marshals frequent is worth monitoring (an MSNBC reporter does). Be advised, however, that just because someone is on this site does not mean that person is a marshal. But the site is a starting point.

6. Get the documents. The TSA marks almost everything it produces "security sensitive." This means those documents are almost never made public. But if you develop sources within the agency and know what to ask for, you might be able to obtain some of these documents. In addition, airlines and airports receive confidential security directives, as do employees of the Federal Aviation Administration. Unless you get a sense of what the directives say, you'll have little idea what steps the government has taken. Finding sources with access to them and who are willing to share insights about what they say will give you information you need to develop a story about what is -- or isn't -- being done.

7. Do daily airport-security searches. You'll get a sense of what other reporters are writing about and be able to decide whether those issues might apply to your airport. Reading stories from other parts of the country might also help you spot trends.

8. Be extra vigilant. Remember, the government doesn't believe that details about security should be made public. That means officials default to secrecy quickly and without reason. Make them prove to you that 1) something has been done, or 2) that writing about an existing problem would truly imperil the country.

*Adapted from materials by Blake Morrison, USA Today. Morrison has covered aviation safety and security issues for USA Today since 1999. After 9/11, he published many articles on aviation security. He currently covers national security issues for the paper.

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