Blog: The Educated Reporter

Details, Data and Voices: K-12 Reporters Tell ‘How I Did the Story’

A teacher shortage in Oklahoma. Data-driven analysis of the Detroit School Board election. Teen suicide. The impact of an influx of Central American youths on a high-poverty Oakland school. Four of this year’s Education Writers Association award finalists recently shared their stories and took questions from a packed room at the EWA National Seminar on how they did their work.

Rocking the Beat

Andrea Canfield, a finalist in the EWA Awards for beat reporting, said she “fell into” education reporting in 2000, and has come to love the beat. “I would never want to report on anything else,” she said during the May 31 panel.

Canfield’s work for The Tulsa World in Oklahoma over the past year has focused largely on the growing teacher shortage there, she said. Salaries for teachers are very low in Oklahoma and teachers are moving to bordering states, especially Arkansas and Texas, in hopes of better pay.

One of her stories profiled a former teacher of the year who left her family behind to take a job in the Dallas area and help save money for her daughter’s college education. Another story had Canfield up at dawn to sit with a district official in charge of the mad scramble to find substitute teachers to fill absences.

Canfield said it helped her readers understand the crisis if she could “tell really detailed stories of teachers’ lives.” Canfield was able to build a strong enough connection with teachers that they felt comfortable sharing salary and family budget information with her, adding to the power of her coverage.

She also wrote about the impact of new industries, like Google, on local schools, an investigative piece on a charter school illegally working with a religious institution, and the high percentage of educators running for public office in Oklahoma this year.

Canfield’s Big Tip: “Work ahead” to manage the balance of short pieces with longer features. It took her at least four years on the education beat before she worked ahead consistently and effectively, she said.

Examining 63 Candidates for School Board

At the EWA seminar, Chastity Pratt Dawsey of Bridge Magazine represented a collaboration of nine reporters, two publications, a TV station and a radio station in her presentation on the big data project they produced, “Detroit Board Candidates Exposed.”

The news team decided the only way to properly screen the 63 candidates running for the Detroit school board this year was to work together. This election was especially important because it would be the first opportunity in a long time for the city school board to have real decision-making power over school budgets and other critical school functions. (For years, the board has been under state receivership.)

Each reporter — four members of the team — researched 16 candidates and entered everything they learned into a sharable database. They looked at the candidates’ personal finances, their voting records and their criminal records, just for a start. They also got responses to three open-ended questions from each candidate and published them. The group worked together to write the main bar for the story, actually passing around a keyboard while they had the story pulled up on a big, shared screen.

The biggest challenge was time, Pratt Dawsey said. The team only had 60 days to finish its work, and had to meet at least weekly to keep the project on tracks.

“More than half the candidates had filed a bankruptcy or foreclosure,” or had other personal financial problems, Pratt Dawsey said. “One teacher-aide had been arrested for soliciting prostitution, another had a condition that triggers significant periodic memory loss and another was [found to be] neglectful of his foster kids.”

The final project gave readers a searchable database they could use to look up the candidates and get an accurate picture of their history and current positions.

Pratt Dawsey’s Big Tip: “Check everything,” she advises reporters covering any public official. “Even after an election—run [background checks on] your incumbents.”

The Teen Suicide Crisis

Teen suicide is not a new phenomenon and has received its share of media coverage.. Last year’s EWA winner in this category was Hanna Rosin’s “The Silicon Valley Suicides” for The Atlantic. But Max Kutner of Newsweek thought there was more to the story of how contagious such teen deaths can be. He set his story in the Colorado Springs area, where the problem has gotten so out of control that one medical examiner told him it seemed like he’d come to work and it would be “another day, another kid.”

The resulting work, “Teen Suicide is Contagious, and the Problem May Be Worse Than We Thought,” was recognized as an EWA Awards finalist for best feature writing in the magazine/weekly category.

Kutner said that talking to parents is the most difficult part of reporting a story on teen suicide.

“How do you do it in a way your editor and you want and that involves asking gruesome questions – things you wouldn’t ask a mother generally?” Kutner said.

There was no clear answer other than to let parents talk. Never interrupt a grieving parent, Kutner advised. Also, be respectful of and genuinely interested in the child who had been lost.

He also worried that his reporting would contribute to the problem of teen suicide rather than deter it. Kutner sought to emphasize how devastating the losses were to family and friends in hopes that it would discourage teens from taking their own lives. He also read the guidelines for reporting on suicide provided by national experts and tried to follow them, sometimes even arguing with his editor about what was appropriate.

For example, experts prefer the phrase “died by suicide” to remove the blame implied in “committed suicide.” Kutner’s editor was initially resistant to this construction, but agreed to use it in the story.

In addition, Kutner said he looked for a local prevention group and provided their hotline number to readers. (Reporters should also consider publishing the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.)

Kutner’s Big Tip: When reporting on a sensitive subject like suicide, “you have to convince [parents] why you’re the one to report the story,” Kutner said. He brings copies of Newsweek with him and shows them his past stories. Also, he said, “be especially careful not to step on the ends of answers of grieving families.”

Students Flee Central American Violence for U.S. School

As reporters for KALW Public Radio in San Francisco, Kingsley-Ma and Veale learned that Castlemont High School in Oakland – a campus with a mostly black and Hispanic population in one of the most violent areas of the city — had seen a steady influx of new students in recent years from Central America. But these weren’t just newcomers to the U.S. They were often unaccompanied minors fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty in their Central American hometowns.

In their radio story – a finalist for an EWA Award — rather than focusing solely on the teens who had made the risky trek into the U.S., Kingsley-Ma and Veale provided a broader context. How was the existing student population at Castlemont adjusting to the new arrivals?

Some were unmoved by the violence their new classmates were fleeing, according to the reporters, who played a clip of one student pointing out that she and most of her classmates had also lost friends or loved ones to gunfire in their neighborhoods. “People die every day here,” she said in a clip the reporters played. This student was fine with the new students attending Castlemont, but didn’t think they deserved any special treatment.

Others felt compelled to be especially welcoming, like one student featured in the series who started an anti-bullying campaign to protect the new students and who felt the campaign had pulled the whole school together.

All told, the reporters produced a poignant portrait of a vulnerable school community working, and sometimes struggling, to integrate new members.

Kingsley-Ma and Veale’s Big Tip: Talk to everyone. Because newcomer students have tenuous legal status and their identities have to be protected, the reporters started talking to other students and it was there that they found their bigger story.