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Sunday, September 26, 2021

UC Davis alum wins prestigious Peabody Award for investigative journalism

MICHAEL BOTT / COURTESY

UC Davis graduate, producer for NBC News Bay Area’s piece about police misconduct on school campuses wins alongside Beyoncé’s Lemonade, FX’s Atlanta, HBO’s VEEP

Michael Bott, a UC Davis graduate and current producer for the investigative unit of NBC News Bay Area, has been awarded the most prestigious award in broadcast journalism for his piece on the misuse of police officers on school campuses.

During his time at UC Davis, Bott majored in international relations and wrote for the city news desk at The Aggie. As an undergraduate student, Bott had no intention of pursuing a career in journalism.

“I thought I wanted to get into politics, until I did a summer internship after my freshman [year] under Diane Feinstein,” Bott said.

After spending a summer abroad in Spain following his junior year, Bott applied to be a reporter for The Aggie.

“That was when I really realized that this is where my passion [is] and this is what I want to do with my life, to pursue a career in journalism,” Bott said.

Following his graduation, Bott worked at an ABC station in San Francisco as an entry-level production assistant, known as the lowest paid job in television. His next job was at the ABC affiliate station called News 10 in Sacramento, where he was offered a position as an assignment editor. As assignment editor, he was in charge of covering breaking news by sending out crews to cover what was happening.

“When I was just starting in this business at my first job in television the [veteran] reporters would look at me and tell me I’m crazy for wanting to get into this business now, at that time newspapers were laying staff off and a lot of people just thought that the media as it had existed for decades was dying,” Bott said. “I’m so glad I didn’t listen to those people, [journalism] is not a career that you’re gonna make a ton of money in, sometimes it can be stressful […] [but] it really is a rewarding job, I would go crazy if I had to do a desk job every day, [I’m] allowed to cover important stories, it’s always interesting, you’re meeting new people every day and you’re doing what I consider to be important work […] if you just [want] to make ends meet and collect paychecks, journalism is not the way to go but if you want to do something that’s really rewarding don’t listen to the people that doubt what’s out there.”

Bott began his position as an investigative producer for NBC about two years ago, when he first took action to look into the topic of police misuse.

“Nationally, black students are about 3 times more likely to be arrested at school than white students,” reads the NBC website. “Children with disabilities are also 3 times more likely to be arrested compared to their peers. In California, black students with disabilities — compared to white students without disabilities — are 16 times more likely to be arrested at school.”

This discrepancy ignited Bott’s interest, and he was curious to delve further into the dynamic of disciplinary practices across Bay Area school districts. He initiated the investigation by looking into the Department of Education archives of student arrests and citations at schools.

“The data was online but it was old and new data wasn’t going to be released for a while so we decided to go to each individual school district and see what their arrest and citation rates were for students,” Bott said.

According to Bott, this portion was the most labor intensive process of the reporting. Many districts were unresponsive to public records requests that were sent to them. From the 160 school districts sampled, some were not actively collecting data, even though there are risks of losing public funding if they do not do so. Others were not even aware that they had to be keeping track at all.

While Bott was the producer and the primary facilitator of this project, he collaborated with NBC reporter Bigad Shaban. The pair have been working on this investigative piece for the past two years, and they are still adding on to their work.

“Our actual investigation [has been for] two years but we submitted a year’s worth of work [ for the Peabody] to date we’ve done seven parts, but we continue to go in depth [with] stories that we want to continue to pursue,” Shaban said.

Bott discussed cases of students getting arrested on school grounds for minor behavioral issues. He added that, according to guidelines of the American Civil Liberties Union, it would be appropriate for school counselors or teachers, instead of police, to get involved in those particular situations, such as a student doing somersaults on the muddy school quad.

“There are so many students dealing with autism who may have all sorts of special challenges, I guess what is likely happening is that schools don’t have the staff trained to interact with those students, a lot of schools who have police officers on hand just call [them] […] counselors are trained to deescalate the situation, police officers aren’t trained to deal with kids they arrest bad guys […] when you’re putting them on a school campus and telling them to be the school disciplinarian, they’re going to do what they’re trained to do which is arrest and incite,” Bott said.

One particular case stood out to Bott, and this involved a 13-year-old student with autism spectrum disorder who police threatened with arrest over a minor issue.

“Adrian [from San Jose Unified school district] had been cited, which the same as an arrest on your record, for basically taking a small rock and scribbling his initials out on the sidewalk of the school, he was able to clean it off with soap and water,” Bott said. “This school called the police and they threatened to put handcuffs [on him].”

Later in the reporting, Bott and his team uncovered that several campuses had numerous police officers on the premise while lacking a single counselor.

“That was startling, [it] makes you question the priorities of these districts,” Bott said.

Another “key component” of the investigation became the report showing that many school officers do not receive sufficient training.

“The Department of Justice recommends 40 hours for a school based officer, but in San Jose school district they were training officers for 30 minutes,” Bott said.

Both Shaban and Bott are glad that their reporting led to some changes in the school system.

“It’s been wonderful to have the reporting make a positive change, whether it was local policy changes or catching the attention of the White House,” Shaban said.

Bott and Shaban feel very humbled and excited to receive the Peabody award among veteran nominees like CNN and 60 Minutes.

“It’s always nice to be recognized for your work, I certainly wasn’t expecting [to win the award,” Bott said. “I’ve won regional awards and local awards and that kind of thing but you know [the Peabody award] is a pretty big one so we were really shocked when they even announced we were finalists. You look at your name among the other finalist and national news power houses and you start to feel like a bit of an imposter.”

Shaban also expressed excitement for being a winner among other well-known entertainment names.

“It’s not every day that you’re on the same list as Beyoncé […] the Peabody is known as Pulitzer of broadcast journalism so we are really really proud,” Shaban said.

According to the Peabody website, the rubric that the contestants are judged on includes “[recognizing] when storytelling is done well in electronic media; when stories there matter. These are stories that engage viewers as citizens as well as consumers.”

This statement aligns with Bott’s mission as a journalist, which he said is “to hold the powerful accountable.”

“The public is on the other side of the coin, are having the greater appreciation for journalism now and understanding the importance of it, understanding that government and public officials don’t always have your best interest in mind and the media is the only force out there with the power to combat that and try to get at the truth, as a citizen you have no chance of fighting that power alone […] the press and media [in my opinion] is the best way the public can hold the government accountable because ultimately they should be accountable to public but unfortunately in many cases they’re not,” Bott said. “ [Private citizens can’t] […] hold [their] public officials accountable by themselves so they turn to us.”

 

Written by: Kimia Akbari — campus@theaggie.org

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