Nothing stays buried for long when reporter Marian Gail Brown digs into a story.
Brown, who writes for the Connecticut Post, came to a Fairfield journalism class to share some techniques used in one of her recent award-winning investigative stories.
For that story ("Cemetery's Residents: Gone and Forgotten"), Brown was looking into a complaint that local St. Augustine's Cemetery was being used as a dump. The first thing she did was visit the graveyard in person.
Always take a look at the site before calling, said Brown.
She said that this allows her to see the grounds before the organization can "spin" her. According to Brown, public relations personnel may try to make her think there is no story when there actually is one.
After visiting the cemetery grounds, she saw what looked like an abandoned lot. Finding knocked-over headstones and a well-worn path to a makeshift shooting gallery in the corner, she armed herself with the facts that "make PR people want to crawl under a rock and die."
Not surprisingly, she heard the old excuses - "it happens everywhere" or "it's a bad neighborhood" - when she contacted the diocese which was supposed to maintain the lot. However, with some homework, she knew better than to take those statements at face value.
"I ask smarter people who can tell me what are good questions to ask," said Brown on preparing for an interview.
Finding potential expert guidance is often a simple search on the internet, she said.
For this piece, she chose to contact a funeral director in Florida - familiar with the practices of the field and yet far enough from Bridgeport as to be not directly associated and biased. From him, she learned to ask about key topics such as: What is the church obligated to do when a family pays for perpetual care?
Brown generally saves the hard questions for last. Inevitably however, people tend to "shut up" when they realize "what they say may get them in trouble," said Brown.
What ends up happening is that they tell her they would call her back - and fail to do so each time she tries to reach them.
But this method does little more than buy time against Marian Gail Brown, who then pulls out the this-will-not-look-good-in-the-press-if-you-repeatedly-do-not-return-my-calls card.
Another thing to keep in mind, said Brown, is never to trust a source when it claims that a piece of information does not exist.
When Brown asked for the land plan of the cemetery in order to get the names of its residents, the response she got was that they were "lost in a fire" some time ago. - She found a couple of lists made in 1934 with about 500 names along with a negative of a photograph taken in WWI of the site at the local library.
However, names are not enough to write a story, especially on the long-deceased. To learn more, Brown combed through various sources, including:
-Wills from the city probate office.
-Property tax records.
-Voter registration information.
-Old phone/address directories.
Bit by bit, each little detail uncovered more information which eventually led Brown to some living descendents of those interred at St. Augustine's. And gradually a story was born.