How KR Overcame Hurdles to Present Major Print/Web Package on Vets

By: Brian Orloff A team from Knight Ridder decided to look beyond the headlines of the U.S. military at war to see how we are treating our veterans here at home. Breaking through FOIA barriers, they packaged a remarkable portrait of unequal treatment.

The finished project, called "Discharged and Dishonored: Shortchanging America's Veterans," ran last weekend in Knight Ridder newspapers, and is now part of an extensive online package, but it was months in the making. For the KR investigative team, comprised of reporters Chris Adams, Alison Young, and editor James Asher, reporting on the bureaucracy and getting all the necessary information proved challenging.

"We filed a bunch of FOIA requests with the Veterans Administration early on -- I think it was February of 2004 -- and got stonewalled by them," Asher told E&P. "Ultimately, in November, we sued them. It was very intriguing that once the suit was filed, they started coughing up every record we asked for."

Asher, who came to Knight Ridder to head the I-Team in December 2002, said the story idea was inspired by ongoing news coverage.

"We decided that since everyone was preoccupied with the military, we ought to look at how the nation takes care of its military," he said. "We did that by going to the first, direct place: the Veterans Administration. What we found was something very interesting, which was that nobody had ever done any substantial reporting on the benefits/ compensation side of the Veterans Administration,? as opposed to what happens in the V.A. hospital system.

Despite being hampered early on by the department's unresponsiveness to Knight Ridder's FOIA requests, Asher said a related court that handles appeals on veterans' claims did provide a database with names of veterans whose appeals were protracted, or who waited many years for their appeals to be heard.

The story describes inefficiencies and irregularities within various state offices which have no standardized method of assessing veterans' injury claims. Similarly, the amount of remuneration offered for the same conditions varies wildly from state to state and office to office. Asher noted that while it would be heartening if the government used the Knight Ridder stories to make reforms, he wasn't sure they would be so quick to act.

"It's always hard to predict how bureaucracy will respond," he said. "There is some study going on now about why this disparity exists and I suspect it's one of the tantalizing things in our reporting.

"They've done some reports over the years -- not about the disability rating that we found -- but about the amount of money that they pass out each year by state," he continued. "They found a disparity there but they've never done anything about that. Once they've recognized that there's something intrinsically different about the way they give a rating on a particular illness or injury, and that changes by regional office, they're pretty intrigued to harmonize that."

Reader response has been quite active, and overwhelmingly positive. "The first day we got somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 e-mails and telephone calls," Asher said. "When you're providing a single story to as many newspapers as we own, it only has to move a few people in each town to receive a number of e-mails."

Negative responses have come from veterans who report positive experiences with the V.A. Asher's response to that feedback? "Well, we'd hoped that somewhere along the way, lots of soldiers, sailors and marines would feel good about their experience with VA," he said.

Online readers can post comments on message boards, or ask questions of the reporters on interactive forums. Further online coverage includes video and audio from story subjects.

The Web site also provides charts and graphs that allow readers to make comparisons between local Veterans Administration branches, among other features. And Asher noted that because of the FOIA requests, more information and documents have been pouring in -- some as recently as a month ago -- so the team will continue to report on these stories.

And, in another unique facet of the story, the Knight Ridder Washington bureau distributed materials from the story to its individual newspaper offices three weeks before the main story ran to give each newspaper the time, and the option, to write locally-focused, related stories to augment the main feature. Many of the Knight Ridder affiliates participated, according to Asher, including newspapers in Fort Worth, Texas, St. Paul, Minn., and Biloxi, Miss.

"Some of them have editorialized about it," Asher said. "Some of them have written stories. Some of them made it into a longer series. They've all taken a different approach about how to make this as relevant to their communities as possible."

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