How I Did the Story 2008
Did you read the award winning entries in EWA's 2008 National Awards for Education Reporting and wonder how journalists found their stories? EWA has collected narratives from first-prize winners and they tell you exactly how they got their stories and the challenges they faced while reporting. EWA hopes you use these submissions as a guide to help with your reporting efforts.
* Narratives are substituted with judges comments from the National Awards for Education Reporting Contest
Mutual Challenge: Disabled, Attending College
" Mutual Challenge: Disabled, Attending College"
This story began with a status report from the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, quietly posted on their web site, showing that the number of students with disabilities attending college was increasing steadily, but funding to serve them was not. The report provided the hard data I needed on a statewide basis.
I also cover preK-12 education, so I had some experience with the shift services special education students receive going from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in preK-12 to the Americans with Disabilities Act in college.
Step two was bringing the data to life. I am fortunate to have good relationships with staff at our local four-year public and community colleges who agreed the issue was under-reported and wanted to help. At
Several students agreed to more in-depth personal interviews. All have different types of disabilities that require different accommodations. Editors and I agreed that breaking out their stories into mini-features was the most effective way to show that diversity and share their stories.
Winner: Diane D’Amico, The Press of Atlantic City
IC. Newspapers Under 100,000--Series or Group of Articles
Sanders-Clyde Elementary was one of the worst schools in the school district, but a new principal transformed the school into one that outscored state and district averages.
Winner: Diette Courrégé, The (Charleston, SC) Post and Courier
ID. Newspapers Under 100,000--Investigative Reporting
I got a phone call from a worried mom that developed into an investigative profile of a school leader who oversaw three schools in four years that suffered financial problems and alleged conflicts of interest.
Documents gave us the details: Charter schools are usually tax-exempt nonprofits, so they typically file tax returns (990s) with the IRS that give salaries, trustees' names, budgets and more, along with a statement of incorporation that is filed with the state. They file detailed applications with school districts when they are chartered and renewed, which included resumes for the school leader. Annual audits, letters between districts and charters, meeting minutes, and a private investigation that went public added more detail. And the search website Accurint helped sleuth for phone numbers for students who had attended schools that had long since closed. Experts on charter schools helped me understand what I was looking at.
But interviews were what humanized a potentially wonky story about finances. I sought out a student to tell each part of the story. A lot of this was old-fashioned shoe leather, and one name led to another. I can't blow my sources' cover -- but just remember that no source is too small. There were problems along the way: I had to persuade a principal to give me meeting minutes, and tracking down our subject was tough after his school had closed. The key ingredients were time and persistence. Don't give up.
Winner: Emily Alpert, Voice of San Diego.org
IE. Newspapers Under 100,000—Opinion
"Editorials on Bogus Degree"
As The Charleston Gazette's investigative reporter in the 1970s and '80s, I was
Some journalists produce exquisite writing, and I envy them. But I'm long entrenched in Joe Friday's just-the-facts-mam method, without frills.
Winner: James A. Haught, The Charleston (WV) Gazette Newspaper
IIA. Newspapers Over 100,000--Breaking or Hard News
"Melee at Edison Senior High"
When a melee first broke out at Miami Edison Senior High, The Miami Herald sent four reporters to the scene. Others stayed behind in the newsroom to work the phones, each trying to determine what had caused the fracas. By the end of the day, two-dozen students had been arrested. Six were hurt. And thanks to a team of reporters, The Miami Herald had a front-page story, explaining what had happened.
- Kathleen McGrory
Winners: Kathleen McGrory, Trenton Daniel and David Ovalle, The Miami Herald
*IIB. Newspapers Over 100,000--Feature, News Feature or Issue Package
Judges’ comments: A compelling look at an issue that has received too little attention: the struggles of student veterans who are determined to succeed in college. Their stories are touching and inspiring.
Winner: Lizette Alvarez, The New York Times
*IIC. Newspapers Over 100,000--Series or Group of Articles
Judges’ comments: The best combination of writing, reporting and novel idea in this category. Presentation was eye catching. The connection has never been as strongly made that schools serve unwholesome food because its cheaper or because think certain foods sell better. It was also eye opening that kids in poorer schools got higher quality foods than those in wealthier schools.
Winner: Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, Newsday
II. D Newspapers Over 100,000--Investigative Reporting
During eight months of reporting, USA TODAY's Blake Morrison and Brad Heath used the government's own data to identify hundreds of schools where the levels of carcinogens and other chemicals might put children in peril. At most locations, parents knew nothing of the possible dangers. Nor did school officials or state regulators. To identify those schools, USA TODAY compiled tens of millions of records from more than two dozen sources to create what Editor & Publisher called "one of the most extensive online database reports of any newspaper."
Our interactive database (http://www.smokestack.usatoday.com/) melds the government's best data on more than 20,000 industrial polluters with the locations of 127,800 public, private and parochial schools, showing their proximity to one another. The database became the foundation for our reporting and a tool that continues to enable parents to learn about the types, levels and sources of toxic chemicals that might touch their child's school. Children are particularly susceptible to toxic chemicals. The exposures they face early in life can lead to asthma, cancer and other diseases that may not appear for decades. Because the government had no legal obligation to examine toxic chemicals outside schools, USA TODAY took another extraordinary step: We monitored the air near 95 schools.
Teaming with Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, reporters were trained to use pumps, metals filters and other equipment and spent weeks taking "snapshot" air samples in 34 states. Our investigation prompted the EPA to launch a $2.5 million program to test the air outside more than 60 schools across the nation.
- Blake Morrison
Winners: Blake Morrison and Brad Heath, USA Today
II. E Newspapers Over 100,000--Opinion
The Des Moines Register’s opinion-section project looking at how Iowa -- and the nation -- could have world-class schools grew out of a desire to help readers understand what’s at stake for kids and the country in a competitive global economy.
Winner: Linda Lantor Fandel, The Des Moines Register
IIIA.Multimedia (Multi-media entries)
I did this story by living it for a year. As a freelancer, I was able to treat Bill Clinton Hadam, his refugee family, their neighbors, and his school as my full-time, multimedia beat -- and my editor stole time from her daily page to shepherd the series along. Reporting and editing happened at all hours, across two continents, over months and months of hanging out with this community.
My goal in designing “Little Bill Clinton” was to involve readers in Bill's, and his school's, lives for a year -- as they were living them. To do that, you really have to be on hand when the roaches come out, or the charter approval comes through, or the pivotal phone call comes from overseas. Which means I’ve also had a chance to get all too familiar with front-office politics and the Disney Channel’s afternoon lineup. Bill’s parents and school were unguarded to a fault, so access was not a problem. But the many ethical dilemmas that stem from writing in a long-term, intimate, real-time way about needy folks -- particularly kids -- were constantly on our minds. Family and school were under tremendous strain this year; there were times when they were fed up with me, and times when I was unsure about whether to go on. I’m glad we did.
By the end of the year, Bill had left behind his rocky start in America, and begun to thrive.
Winner: Mary Wiltenburg, The Christian Science Monitor
IVA. Beat Reporting Small Media or Market
It’s an honor to receive such an award for our Dallas ISD blog. I have found that good blog posts are those that lay out the facts while seeking the reader’s opinion. They also should have fresh news or a different angle, not something regurgitated from the dead-tree edition. I almost always break stories on the blog, which gives me instant reaction from readers. And blogs should never be left idle — many folks tell me they check the Dallas ISD blog regularly. Reporters should also feel comfortable responding to commenters, thus adding to the conversation.
At the Dallas Morning News, we do a lot of repurposing of blog posts for the newspaper edition. Basically, one of our editors trolls our blogs for stories that he, or the reporter, can easily repurpose for the paper.
The blog does give reporters a certain amount of freedom. For example, I don’t seek approval before posting a blog entry. I write it, edit it and publish it to the web. Having the blog has added extensively to my reach into the community. I’ve been able to develop stories more easily from the valuable interaction with readers.
- Tawnell Hobbs
Winners: Tawnell Hobbs and former education reporter Kent Fischer, The Dallas Morning News
*IVA. Beat Reporting Small Media or Market
Judges’ comments: Scott is talented at finding a contentious “inside” issue among higher education faculty and both presenting and amplifying an enjoying debate and stimulating conversation. He also involves the big picture that makes participants in the discussion better informed advocates for their respective positions. This is journalism as a moderator.
Winner: Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Education
*IVB. Beat Reporting Large Media or Market
Judges’ comments: A variety of original imaginative subjects, including an alarming look at street violence seen through the eyes of Chicago school children.
Winner: Rosalind Rossi, Chicago Sun Times
V. Magazines (Including Alumni Magazines)
Since 1999, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has been exposing “thought reform” programs and other abuses of freedom of conscience and individual rights against U.S. college students and faculty. Rarely, however, does the director of such a program proudly hand over the documentation on such a program to a concerned faculty member! This is what happened at the University of Delaware.
It was hard to believe that the program we saw on paper was really so invasive of students’ privacy and other rights in practice. The same professor, however, put me in touch with several honors students who were undergoing the “treatment.” We soon documented that the program was mandatory, that students were pressured to reveal their sexual identity and their feelings about deep personal and political issues, that students were bullied in one-on-one sessions with resident assistants, and that coercive group activities were designed to lead to specific new beliefs about politics, economics, religion, society, and science.
After we published our first story on the program, more students and resident assistants came forward with stories about the Residence Life staff and new documents, corroborating and extending our understanding of the program. The directors’ professional writings showed that the Residence Life agenda was part of a systematic attempt by student affairs professionals nationwide to change the thoughts, values, attitudes, beliefs, and actions of students outside the classroom under the guise of teaching “citizenship values.” For them, “sustainability” encompassed a worldwide “imperative” so important that individual rights were expendable.
Winner: Adam Kissel, The Lantern
VI. Special Interest, Institutional and Trade Publication
For the data, I relied on figures the U.S. Department of Education collects annually from colleges and universities under the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act. I looked at a narrow slice—recruiting budgets for men’s and women’s sports—and analyzed it over a period of 10 years, from the 1996-97 academic year to 2006-7. Among other things, I looked for increases and decreases over time, and compared peer institutions and athletic conferences to each other.
For the voices, I interviewed nearly four dozen coaches and athletic directors, and surveyed 300 athletes on teams other than the marquee sports of football and basketball. Those two sports dominate much of the discussion of college athletics, but there are 400,000-plus college athletes in this country—and most of them play something else. In the end, the combination of breadth and depth allowed me to take a different tack on the well-covered topic of athletics recruiting.
Winner: Libby Sander, The Chronicle of Higher Education
VII A. Television Hard News and Investigative
This three-part series was a records request nightmare, but don’t let that dissuade you from pursuing a similar story in your market.
KHOU-TV compared campus-level student disciplinary records submitted to the Texas Education Agency with police crime reports on campuses for 21 separate school districts in Houston. After weeks of fighting, the crime reports came in, albeit in different electronic formats, or worse, in hard copy form. The other challenge was the State of Texas redacted exact numbers of campus discipline in some cases (i.e. two sexual assaults on a given campus would be masked as “one to five” because of supposed Federal Education Right to Privacy Act “rules.”
As a result, we concentrated on scenarios in which the State of Texas recorded zero incidents of a certain disciplinary action, but yet we were to identify a corresponding crime on the same campus vis-à-vis police crime reports. Accordingly, we came up with about 150 cases, some quite disturbing, of crimes “disappearing” from state records or being watered down to look far less serious.
When confronted, district superintendents admitted the errors and pledged corrective action. However, The Texas Education Agency, however did not seem overly concerned. That was not surprising considering the oversight agency did little to no oversight and took schools at their word for accurate reporting. Given that reaction, a state lawmaker pledged to introduce new legislation aimed at more accountability.
- Jeremy Rogalski
Winners: Jeremy Rogalski, David Raziq, and Keith Tomshe, KHOU-TV (Houston, TX)
VIIB. Television Documentary and Feature
But, in Fall, 2008, that all changed. Locke was taken over by a private charter school operation Green Dot Public Schools which was determined to turn the place around.
I was equally determined not to tell this story in paint-by-numbers fashion by interviewing education experts and adult decision-makers. Instead, I wanted to find a few representative students with the kinds of typical problems shared by many teenagers living in Watts. But finding “typical” wasn’t easy. My Associate Producer, Alexandria Gales and I had a single day to do it! We went to Locke on a hectic registration day.
It was a hit-or-miss proposition approaching wary teenagers at random to determine both their interest and appropriateness for the project. We had to size them up fast, move quickly and be more than a little lucky.
I never envisioned kids with “show-offy” personalities even though TV subjects are usually expected to be talkative and outgoing. Alexandria and I were looking for open and honest personalities, with a bit of maturity thrown in for good measure. It took a lot of private, off-camera conversation to convince the three students we chose to loosen up and trust us. I think the series works so effectively because we really listened to what these kids had to say.
A lot of education stories are about kids, but don’t include them. I’d be delighted if “Inside Locke High” inspires more pieces told from the student’s point of view.
- Angela Shelley
Winners: Angela Shelley, Bret Marcus, Alexandria Gales, Brett Wood, Michael Bloecher, KCET, Community Television of Southern California
Judges’ comments: An impressive job of reporting and great personification of a larger issue. We empathize with these students during these very trying times and this story provides terrific context for the challenges students and families are facing today.
Winner: Claudio Sanchez, National Public Radio
Keyboard photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.Net
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