Open Records, Open Campuses: The Reporter Guide to Access
Education reporters are constantly negotiating access — to schools, students and data. In their session at EWA’s National Seminar, Betsy Hammond of the (Portland, Ore.) Oregonian and Daniel Connolly of the (Memphis, Tenn.) Commercial Appeal discussed two approaches for getting past gatekeepers and to stories worth telling.
Hammond, who described herself as a “data nerd” to the EWA audience at Vanderbilt University in May, focused on data available through public records law.
Examples Hammond cited of records useful on the education beat include:
- Employment contracts for top employees, contracts with outside vendors
- Student achievement records such as test scores, grades and graduation rates
- Financial records such as salaries, overtime, yearly budget
- Teacher pay, teacher experience
- Routine records including school board agendas and meeting minutes
(These examples and more are available in the EWA Reporter Guide on obtaining public records written by Hammond.)
Stories that Hammond has pulled from such data range from a quick-turnaround piece on the top paid administrators at a local university (Hammond found that 23 people were making more than $150,000 per year at a college that was publicly complaining of its money troubles) to a complex, in-depth exploration of Oregon’s dismal school attendance rates.
For that story, Hammond requested attendance information a on every single student in the state of Oregon (about 480,000 total) to examine the impact of chronic attendance problems. After crunching the numbers, she found that nearly one in five Oregon students missed at least 10 percent of the school year. Her investigation became “Empty Desks: Oregon’s Absenteeism Problem.”
Heavy negotiation went into getting student-level data.
She explains in a project summary on the “Empty Desks” website:
“The Oregonian and OregonLive.com obtained attendance records for 480,000 students in 1,150 schools. In most cases, each record shows the student’s grade level, the number of school days missed during the 2012-13 school year and whether the student qualified for subsidized school meals, an indicator of low income. The records were stripped of names and all other potentially identifying information. It was the first time the Oregon Department of Education released data about thousands of individual students to a news outlet. It did so only after working with the newspaper to ensure that no student’s identity could be deduced. In cases with very few students in a grade or very few receiving (or not receiving) subsidized meals in a grade or school, the grade level or meal status was left blank.”
In an additional example of public records access yielding valuable stories, Hammond requested pay records for 11 different school districts. With the datasets, she was able to identify the top paid principals and teachers in the broader area. “Getting records across jurisdictions can be complicated but people loved it,” she said.
She’s also made it a habit to request appointment calendars for school officials. She found that one top-ranking administrator did little work after 10 a.m. on Fridays.
The key to getting records is understanding and citing relevant state and federal law, Hammond said. Her EWA Reporter Guide outlines the process for requesting such records.
The Commercial Appeal’s Connolly focused on the human side of access at the EWA seminar session.
For a yearlong project on Hispanic students in 2013, Connolly took a leave of absence from the newspaper and gained permission to roam a Memphis high school. Coming and going as he pleased, he embedded himself at the school without district minders keeping tabs on his movements. The project, accompanied by the work of Commerical Appeal photographer Karen Pulfer Focht, won second prize in EWA’s education reporting contest.
How did Connolly get this kind of unfettered access? Buy-in from the principal is the key, he said.
“If you get the principal onboard you, the public relations people, you can deal with them,” he said. “If the principal really believes in what you are doing, you’ll be fine.”
Connolly initially got into the school through what he called a “beat sweetener,” a non-threatening story about a JROTC program that allowed for a face-to-face introduction with the principal. He followed up with a phone call and a one-on-one discussion. And when Connolly began expanding his reporting into a book manuscript, he asked the school to send home permission slips in multiple languages including Arabic, Spanish and Vietnamese for the families of students he planned to include in manuscript.
After securing the principal’s support, Connolly negotiated a deal with the district. At first, the district asked for veto control over anything he wrote. The reporter refused. Eventually the two parties settled on an agreement that allows the district to read a draft of the eventual manuscript, but Connolly retains full editorial control.