Katie Kuntz doesn’t just report the pot beat

By Vicky Gits

Since Katie Kuntz, 22, joined Rocky Mountain PBS I-News in July after graduation from the University of Iowa two months earlier, she has become somewhat famous on the Internet as a chronicler of marijuana news. In addition to public television, her stories get play in medical marijuana publications such as 420 Magazine.

She even gets mail from people asking her how to get a job in the marijuana industry. But the reporting on medical and recreational marijuana news is only part of her job.

Lately she has been working her way through murky government databases to uncover the unnamed donors behind the outrageous campaign ads. Sound boring? Kuntz loves it. “It was fun going through the mental aerobics to find out about this,” Kuntz said.

For a young, twentysomething, Kuntz has chalked up an impressive track record.

Kuntz described her career path and life as a multimedia investigative reporter at an Oct. 15 Fireside Chat at the Denver Press Club. The program was sponsored by the Colorado Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Founded by Laura Frank, a former investigative reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, I-News produces in-depth stories and investigative reports that are shared with its television, radio and print partners and other outlets.

In Iowa, Kuntz won the 2014 SPJ Region 7 online reporting Mark of Excellence Award for “Breaking the Cycle: Meth Addiction in Council Bluffs.”

Kuntz said her path to I-News out of college was paved by degrees in both economics and journalism from the University of Iowa in Iowa City. She was valedictorian of the journalism program as well as in the top five percent of her graduating class of more than 2,500.

She was also offered a job at a Washington D.C. television station before being hired at I-News.

Contributors to candidates for the state legislature and state ballot propositions are relatively transparent compared to U.S. Congressional elections, Kuntz said. “Colorado is pretty good. We know clearly who is paying for what…. State elections are a lot less hidden. If you are a group you still have to list who your contributors were.”

In contrast, the Federal Election Commission is extremely lax in enforcing the law so it isn’t unusual to see a donation that is 10 times more than the legal contribution limit. “It was surprising to find how rarely the laws are enforced,” Kuntz said.

Financial players, such as investment banks, tend to contribute equally to both sides of an issue. The most dollars being spent in the state come from the backers of the campaign to expand casino gambling to racetracks, she said.

In her election-finance coverage, Kuntz found the main obstacle is that political nonprofits don’t have to disclose their donors. But they do have to disclose to whom they gave money. “If I’m Freedom Partners I don’t have to say who gave me money but I have to say who I gave money to.”

It isn’t clear that people are using election-contribution information to make voting decisions, Kuntz said. Voters she has interviewed say they no longer want to participate in the system because corporations are spending so much money.

Kuntz said data-driven stories have a high priority in the newsroom because other outlets don’t have the time to do the work. One of the data-journalists on staff has a degree in aerospace engineering and another is fluent in another language. I-News just hired a new data journalist and has a total of two on staff out of a total of seven.