First Prize Winners: How I Did the Story
Narratives from EWA's 2007 First Prize Winners
Story Headlines from First Prize Winners
See grand prize winner's narrative here.
IA. Newspapers Under 100,000--Breaking or Hard News
It's not difficult to explain how we "got" the story on the April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech. But our teamwork in handling the story after it "got" allowed us to give readers a full and timely treatment of a national story unfolding in their backyard.
I received a call from a source around 9:15 a.m. telling me about a shooting at Virginia Tech. He had heard about it because his wife worked at a local elementary schools. No one had reported on anything unusual happening at Tech at that point.
I told my editors and began making my calls but got voicemails or people on campus who had no idea anything was amiss. I began updating the Tech web page and at 9:26 the university sent out the first announcement of shootings on campus earlier that morning. I posted the first mention of the shootings online about 9:30 a.m. and left for campus. My editor scrambled photographers, including Alan Kim, from his home in Blacksburg. Alan would take the photos that the world would later associate with the shootings.
On my way to campus -- about a 10 minute drive from our bureau. I received another call from an editor. The police scanner was talking about a live shooting and I was told to go to Norris Hall, not West Ambler Johnston Dormitory. I arrived to find the building surrounded by police. A few minutes later I spoke with the first students to evacuate the building. The rest of the day was spent communicating updates to my editors, talking to other reporters and photographers as we tried to get our arms around the story. I wish I could say there was some secret to our extensive coverage that day and later that week, but it was just the result of a lot of people and a lot of hustle. Editors were supportive throughout and people put their egos aside to get the most complete story about what happened out there as quickly as possible.
I've never been prouder of my colleagues.
--Greg Esposito, The Roanoke Times. Click here to read story.
IC. Newspapers Under 100,000--Series or Group of Articles
My winning entry involved a package of stories on teacher health-insurance, a highly controversial topic in Michigan. Most Michigan teacher contracts require school districts to purchase insurance through an affiliate of the Michigan Education Association. It is very, very good insurance but it also is very expensive. In fact, I could not find a Michigan employer who pays more for health insurance than school districts.
The story is especially timely because Michigan school funding is very, very tight and most districts have been cutting staff and services for the past five years. Yet districts have maintained this expensive insurance, even as they cut other items on their budget.
My stories looked at the cost differential between the union insurance and what other employers paid; the reasons why the insurance is so expensive and why it's so hard for districts to change to another carrier, and the financial impact on school districts and students. It also raised the issue of whether the MEA is putting its own self-interest before its members by encouraging teachers to forego raises rather than switch insurance plans.
The MEA was furious, and wrote a viewpoint for our editorial, but they did not cite any factual errors in the story.
--Julie Mack, Kalamazoo Gazette. Click here to read story.
ID. Newspapers Under 100,000--Investigative Reporting
My stories on the spending habits of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency grew out of six years of covering a state agency that had fallen under most media outlets’ radar for years.
I began covering PHEAA’s meetings after discovering through a salary survey that nine of the top 10 salaries in state government in 2002 were paid to PHEAA executives. Learning that made me curious what this agency did. So I set out to satisfy my curiosity.
--Jan Murphy, Patriot-News
IIA. Newspapers Over 100,000--Breaking or Hard News
When Columbus police stopped a school bus driver for making an illegal turn in January, they found a syringe of cocaine on board and a driver with a shocking history.
The situation raised an alarming question: How could someone with three drunken-driving convictions and four other traffic offenses be fit to drive children? The incident brought the state’s largest fleet of school buses to a halt and forced a one-day cancellation of classes at Columbus Public Schools and other public and private schools that rely on Columbus buses for student transportation.
A team of Dispatch reporters set out to make sense of the daily developments and explain the flaws that allowed this man to drive a school bus.
Reporters began by asking school districts what their hiring policies were: Who can drive a bus? They quickly discovered that the private company that hired the driver had failed to make required background checks and that districts weren’t following their own hiring policies. In addition, the Dispatch investigation found that ill-conceived state policies allowed districts to review only the most recent three years of driving records for school bus drivers.
Exactly how many drivers with spotty histories were on the road was unclear, so The Dispatch requested a list of the state’s bus drivers from the Ohio Department of Education. Reporters found drivers right away that had previous drunken-driving convictions; some were highlighted in breaking news stories. To dig deeper, the team crafted a query for a Nexis SmartLinx search to find drivers who held a commercial license, which qualified them to drive a school bus, and who had alcohol convictions on their records. The Dispatch examined records of more than 900 school bus drivers in central, eastern and southeastern Ohio and found more than 150 who had been convicted of drug and alcohol offenses. In most cases, their districts had no idea.
The payoff was great, but a word of warning: using Nexis to search people isn’t cheap. And the process was tedious. The stories forced major reforms. A new law bans drivers from school buses who have been convicted of drunken driving in the previous six years or have been involved in major traffic offenses in the previous two years. It also provides school districts access to complete driving histories and gives the Ohio Department of Education the authority to perform ongoing background checks.
The law is working. Since September, the state has alerted school districts to dozens of school bus drivers who have been arrested or caught with a suspended license.
--Jennifer Smith Richards, Columbus Dispatch
IIC. Newspapers Over 100,000--Series or Group of Articles
Over the past quarter century, few policy changes have transformed public education more dramatically than the movement to include more children with disabilities in mainstream classrooms. Most of the country’s six million special-education pupils are now taught this way. Yet the rise in mainstreaming and its far-reaching effects on teachers and students have received little scrutiny.
In a series of stories last year, a team of Wall Street Journal reporters revealed how often mainstreaming has failed to live up to its promise, hurting some of the very children it was meant to help. Reporters Robert Tomsho, John Hechinger and Daniel Golden documented that school systems across the country, using mainstreaming as a pretext to cut costs, have dumped students with serious emotional and behavioral problems into regular classrooms with little or no support.
Although school officials say that disabled students learn more in regular classrooms than in separate ones, the Journal articles showed this apparent improvement is often due to easy grading and excessive “accommodations” that inflate test results. They also reported a parental backlash against the movement. The reporters were able to expose mainstreaming’s shortcomings by obtaining special-education and school-discipline statistics through requests under freedom-of-information laws and by tracking down disenchanted parents and teachers. Through these sources, they gained access to confidential documents, including thousands of pages recording disputes between parents and school systems. The Journal also provided voluminous statistical back-up in an online chartbook and produced an Internet videos documenting the tragic consequences of mainstreaming gone awry.
---Robert Tomsho, John Hechinger and Daniel Golden, The Wall Street Journal. Click here to read story.
IIIA. Beat Reporting--Small Media or Market
After I'd worked more than 15 years as a full-time investigative reporter, my editors reassigned me to the K-12 education beat. I feared I'd waste away in school board meetings. It was challenging to build connections to sources while covering a broad range of breaking, in-depth and feature stories. Most of these issues probably are part of the landscape in your community -- things like problems with the state's school-funding system, rising class sizes, divisive referendums and the impact of budget cuts on vulnerable students.Three approaches that paid off:
2) Tracking down data to bring stories into focus, even on deadline. File a public records request if necessary, but first see if an informal request or a Web hunt will yield what you need. There's power in a basic Excel analysis that shows which districts' enrollments are falling the most sharply, or where poverty is most highly concentrated.
3) Jumping through hoops for a photographer and me to spend time in classrooms.That's where we were able to connect readers directly to the impact of rising class sizes, or to the effects that cuts in special education will have on students.
--Andy Hall, The Wisconsin Journal. Click here to read story.
IIIB. Beat Reporting--Large Media or Market
"It would have been easy to let a story about a small, radical private school sit, forgotten, at the bottom of the pile of story ideas and clips and studies that threaten to take over my desk. First, Clearwater School has just 60 kids. It barely fits what most people would call a school since it has no classes, and no teachers. (It’s run with the philosophy that learn best when they direct their own education, without any prompting from adults.)
I usually write about public schools, about issues that affect large numbers of students, about tests and new curriculum and whether students are learning what they need to succeed in the 21st century. But every once in awhile, I try to travel well off the beaten track to explore the education hinterlands, which I think also help illuminate what schooling’s all about.
The story about Clearwater wasn’t a difficult story, or one that took a lot of time. It ended up one of my favorite stories from last year, however, because it got readers thinking about what we mean by education, and how best to achieve it. It did so by introducing them to people who reject every notion of a convention education. One challenge was to write the story in a way that was truthful (kids at Clearwater can play video games all day long, and none of them will probably ever be accepted to the Ivy League), but not dismissive. I worked to provide an accurate description, and let readers draw their own conclusions."
--Linda Shaw, Seattle Times. Click here to read story.
IVA. Magazines--National Circulation
We started reporting “I Can Get Your Kid into an Ivy,” with one considerable advantage: we had a very eager, extremely candid, and highly excitable subject, college consultant Michele Hernandez. Hernandez promises her clients anonymity and privacy. She was willing to approach clients on our behalf, though—which we appreciated but which is also made us a bit apprehensive. But none of her current clients was willing to be named (let alone be photographed) in the midst of the admissions process. Then Hernandez gave us the names of the very few pro bono clients she works with. We interviewed them, but decided not to include them in the story precisely because they hadn’t paid the tens of thousands of dollars for Hernandez’s services that most every other client had. Finally, we realized that we would have to look for clients who were in college or who had graduated already. We did eventually find several students (and parents) who were comfortable talking to us, and we profiled two of them extensively in the story. Of course, interviewing people about experiences that occurred several years ago presented its own challenges. We were trying to weave together their stories with Michele’s and determining specific and reliable dates for certain conversations and decisions required a lot of back and forth, checking and confirming and correcting details with everybody. Not to mention patience on our editor’s part.
--Susan Berfield and Anne Tergesen, BusinessWeek. Click here to read story.
IVB. Magazines--Regional or Local Circulation
Every year more than 60 high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District match wits in the ten-event intellectual contest known as academic decathlon. The best teams in the city are often the best in the nation: In nine of the last 26 years, the L.A. Unified champion had gone on to win the United States Academic Decathlon. No other school district in America comes close to that record, much less a district as troubled and complex as the LAUSD. Aca-deca is its good news story, the antidote to gloomy test scores and bureaucratic fumbles. Without meaning to, though, the competition also exposes all the inequities—income, culture, technology, safety—that make the city’s educational system an uneven playing field. I decided that a story about the team from one of its most distressed campuses, Jordan High in Watts, would have the capacity to both inspire and enrage. After seeking permission from administrators for unlimited access to the school, I spent roughly six months following Jordan’s nine-student squad and their bumbling yet painfully honest coach, from the first day of class in September 2006 to the day they were eliminated from the city meet in February 2007. There is no substitute for observation. Thanks to a patient and trusting editor, I was able to be present for practices and meals, celebrations and disappointments, to witness the dignity of these brave young people tested time and again. How much reporting is enough? Until you learn the answers to questions you would have never known to ask.
--Jesse Katz, Los Angeles Magazine. Click here to read story.
V. Special Interest, Institutional and Trade Publications
My series of articles on racial attitudes and their impact on education policy had its origins in conversations with black school board members who complained that race was the elephant in the boardroom. Everyone knew it was there, but no one wanted to talk about it. So when the Nebraska state legislature voted to break up the Omaha school system—possibly along racial lines—I knew it was time to visit the city and launch a series of stories examining the link between race and education policy.
As it turned out, the real story wasn’t the racial attitudes among today’s board members but how racial attitudes in the past had a lingering, long-term impact on the economic, political, and cultural forces at work in each community.
I asked lots of questions. Was it racial discrimination—or economic self-preservation—that fueled white flight? Were schools low performing because the community was so poor—or was the community poor because low-achieving schools discouraged economic development? To understand what was really going on in a community required visits to every community, as well as lots of interviews—about 100 over the course of the three articles written. But I went far beyond the schools to talk to politicians, business leaders, local historians, and senior citizens who could describe attitudes of half a century ago. I read plenty of books and newspaper articles, as well, including some incredibly sad news accounts of protests in Detroit targeted at black families who moved into all-white neighborhoods in the 1950s.
In short, my articles involved basic, old-fashioned journalism: Talk to a lot of people. Ask a lot of tough questions. And collect as much information as possible.
--Del Stover, American School Board Journal
VIA. Television--Hard News and Investigative
We did face several challenges. First, district leaders weren’t releasing (yet) any hard numbers on projections and they were only willing to talk generically about the proposal for a new bond. We were able to piece together some data from various public meetings and also found parents and community leaders who were willing to talk both about the need for new schools in a rapidly growing district and potential stumbling blocks in getting a bond passed.
Because we work in television, one of our biggest challenges was to make the stories visual. So we pegged the stories on a second grader at an overcrowded school and then asked, what will the district look like ten years from now when she’s graduating high school? We used two cameras for the interview with the school district, and moved the interview from an office to a school construction site. We also designed simple graphics to illustrate numbers that could otherwise get complicated.
About a week after our initial series aired, the district released projections for the 2008 bond - $9.5 billion to build 73 new schools and modernize dozens of others.
--Kathy Topp, KVBC-TV Las Vegas, NV
VIB. Television--Documentary and Feature
In September of 1957, Little Rock Central High School became ground zero for the civil rights struggle for equal education in America. After Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus defied the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling and ordered the National Guard to prevent nine black teenagers from entering Central High School, President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by sending troops from the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to protect the students as they entered the building. To mark the 50th anniversary of the forced integration of Central High School, Little Rock natives Brent and Craig Renaud followed the lives of contemporary Central High students, teachers and administration, as well as community leaders and members of the Little Rock Nine, over the course of a year, visiting classes, school meetings and assemblies, teenagers’ homes and community events. Sharing the stories of both black and white students, the special revealed the opportunities and challenges facing them in and out of the classroom. For many Americans, the desegregation of Central High is merely a chapter in history books. But the students of Little Rock Central High live in the ever-present wake of this historic event, growing up amidst complex race, class and socio-economic issues. Today, though the school is desegregated, some say it is still not fully integrated.
Prior to the year of filming during the 2006-2007 school year at Central, we devoted six months of full time research to the project. Before we ever picked up our cameras, we met with hundreds of students, teachers, administrators, community and city leaders, members of the Little Rock Nine and citizens of Little Rock who had witnessed firsthand the events of 1957. We wanted to be sure that we had a strong sense of where the school was today before moving forward with our filming. We also spent that time developing the trust of the subjects we would eventually follow. This was crucial in allowing them to speak candidly about issues of race and class, which are topics that are so often avoided.
After filming for an entire year, we spent approximately four months editing through more than a hundred hours of footage. We also spent an extensive amount of time researching and viewing all of the available archival footage that was recorded in 1957 at Little Rock Central. When the crisis occurred, television was new and the world media descended on Central High to cover the story. Although the majority of our documentary dealt with Central High today, we felt it was important to use some archival footage throughout the film to remind viewers of the horrible events that took place at the school in 1957.
Difficulty and Uniqueness in Obtaining the Story
We first began approaching the school and the school district in 2001 with our request to make a documentary at Little Rock Central. Year after year, we were denied access to the school, mainly due to concerns that the filming of a documentary would be disruptive to students during school hours. Never giving up, we continued to request access to the school, cultivating relationships with the school’s administrators and teachers and gaining their trust. Finally in the spring of 2005, the school and the City created the Central High School 50th Anniversary Commission and began making plans for what they knew would be a milestone anniversary commemoration event for one of the most pivotal civil rights moments in our nation’s history. The 40th Anniversary commemoration ceremonies at Central High in 1997 were a major national news event, when President Bill Clinton symbolically reopened the doors of Central High for the Little Rock Nine, who had all gathered together for the first time since 1957. Everyone knew that the 50th Anniversary would be even bigger, and would perhaps be the last time that all of the members of the Little Rock Nine would be able to attend. The school and the City also knew that they would be getting hundreds of requests from national news outlets, reporters and documentary filmmakers from around the world, all wanting exclusive access to this major historical event. They were correct in their thinking, and received literally hundreds of requests for access to the school.
The school and the 50th Anniversary Commission finally decided to grant full and exclusive access to us alone for a number of reasons. We had already spent many years trying to gain access to the school, and had proven that our interest in telling the story was deeper than just gaining access to a major national news story. We were natives of Little Rock and a graduate of Little Rock Central, who had not only gone on to become award winning documentary filmmakers, but had continued to tell the important stories of our home state. We gained particular notoriety in Arkansas and earned a trustworthy reputation as filmmakers for our film Off to War, which was a ten episode, award winning series for the Discovery Times Channel that followed the Arkansas National Guard for an entire year in Iraq.
Another significant consideration for granting us the exclusive access to Little Rock Central was our unobtrusive, cinema verite shooting style, which the school felt was the best way to avoid disruption to the students during class time. When we make documentaries, we use a fly on the wall approach, without large crews, tripods, lights or heavy equipment. We direct, shoot and edit all of our own footage on small format digital cameras, and we always tell stories through the perspective and voices of the people we follow, without narration or a film-makers point of view. Considering the politically controversial subject matter of the film, mainly education, race and class at America’s most famous public high school, and because of the timing of the 50th Anniversary that would once again place a national spotlight on the school, it was essential to the City and the school that they could trust the reputation and intentions of the journalists to whom they were granting this coveted access. For these reason, we became the only journalists in the world with the access and opportunity to tell this important historical story.
---Brent Renaud, Downtown Community Television Center. Click here to learn more about the documentary.
Every time you go to another school board meeting, a little voice has probably whispered in your ear: 'Get me out of here.' Listen to that voice, and get into a classroom. Sitting in class, or in the main office of most schools, can be a bore. But I've never regretted taking that time out. So I called the Baltimore schools, and asked them to let me hang out in a failing high school. They ignored me for months, but eventually, they gave me carte blanche. My disadvantage as a radio reporter is that I'm conspicuous--my equipment makes it impossible to blend in. But my advantage is that when I get a good exchange on tape, it can be dynamite. Hearing teachers in this school yelling at kids was shocking to me. It was even more shocking to listeners. The school district eventually asked me to leave the school. Administrators said, it was because I wasn't focused on their efforts to meet standards. In my opinion, it was because they had never really listened to the sounds of their own schools.One more thing: this was a painful experience. I grew close to the teachers and administrators at this school, and I still feel a twinge of guilt when I recall how badly many of them came off in my stories. I knew that some teachers' careers might be harmed by what they said in our stories. But that's our job, to shine a spotlight on schools. In the end, many teachers said, they learned a lot about their own schools from listening to these pieces.
--Larry Abramson, NPR. Click here to read story.
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