Blog: The Educated Reporter

EWA Awards Finalists Tell ‘How I Did the Story’

Want to tell a gripping tale? Be prepared to be patient — and really listen — when you do the reporting for your story.

That’s what Chalkbeat Chicago education reporter Adeshina Emmanuel said as he spoke to a room full of education reporters in the EWA session “How I Did The Story, K-12,” describing his method for a story about a 16-year-old Chicago student who could not read.

“How It Feels to Be Javion,” a finalist for feature writing in this year’s EWA Awards, was sparked by a Chalkbeat listening tour of Chicago, launched when the bureau opened in the city last year.

During one of those community sessions, Emmanuel met a woman who spoke about her struggle to find a pathway for her nephew’s success in the city’s public school system.

“She told a story about how she went to register her nephew for school, and they were filling out some forms, and he just didn’t know how. He couldn’t get through the form. And she just started crying,” he said.

It struck Emmanuel not just as a possible story, but as a chance to work with a woman he felt “was a strong central character in this conflict.”

Emmanuel contacted her and set up a two-hour lunch, where they discussed everything from school challenges to fashion and basketball. They formed a bond that continued building with time, and trust bloomed into access. Emmanuel even accompanied the family to a private meeting with school officials. (For more about Emmanuel and his reporting project, check out this EWA member spotlight: “Reporting on Race With Context and Empathy.”)

This kind of slow build was at the heart of the “How I Did The Story” panel, where The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit, and ProPublica’s Hannah Dreier also discussed how they crafted notable stories with intimate details. (You can hear audio of the session here: How I Did The Story )

“This is Bruna,” Balingit said as she projected an image of a 14-year-old student who was inside a Parkland, Florida, classroom on Valentine’s Day when a classmate opened fire and killed 17 people.

When Balingit first approached Bruna days after the shooting, the student was standing outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with a blank look on her face. Her mother stood beside her – crying, Balingit recalled.

“I asked [Bruna] what was going on, and she said she was in one of the classrooms [when the massacre took place] . And I looked at her, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to talk about the shooting. Let’s talk about whatever you want to talk about,’” said Balingit. “She told me she played flute in the band, and I said let’s talk later. So I ended up going over to her apartment, and I started by asking her: ‘Tell me about Valentine’s Day.’”

Bruna then walked her through the whole day.

“And I let her completely control the conversation and the narrative,” said Balingit, an EWA Awards finalist for beat  reporting. Afterward, Bruna told Balingit that shortly after the shooting, she’d been stopped by a TV reporter who said, “You have to tell me what happened. You have to tell me…. So here’s this girl who’s terrified, who’s forced to go on camera. [Bruna] said that she hated reporters after that. She said ‘I never, ever was going to talk to a reporter again, but you were super nice to me,’” Balingit said.

Time, and interacting on a human level, were key, Balingit said. And that’s one of the most important things the Post reporter wanted to convey during the session: “To me, that really showed that you need to treat these people as fully human, not just as victims of shootings,” she said.

For Emily Hanford, going the extra mile looked a little bit different. While reporting the “Hard Words” documentary (winner of an EWA Award for Public Service) she went back to school – literally. She signed up to audit a class in the science of reading, being taught through a master’s degree program. That wasn’t an easy course to find as it’s not commonly taught, Hanford said. 

Hanford’s documentary reinvigorated a national conversation – and debate — over how teachers are being prepared to teach reading, and how shortfalls in their training are having lingering, and often devastating, effects on students who need additional support. 

Most of her classmates in the graduate school class were teachers, and this gave her valuable insight into just how deep the misunderstanding of reading methodology goes. “One teacher said, ‘I didn’t feel adequately prepared to teach reading. This is hard for me to admit, because I have several degrees and felt like I should know what I’m doing,’” Hanford said, while reading a selection of class discussion notes out loud.

“When teachers do learn the science, it’s really emotional,” she said. And meeting them where they were – at a course, learning about the very topic on which Hanford was reporting – was a key way to find this emotional space for storytelling.

Hannah Dreier, whose stories earned her EWA’s Grand Prize this year, as well as a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing, offered similar advice during the panel. Dreier described how she tried repeatedly to confirm details about a school district turning students over to immigration officials for deportation after the youths had helped identify members of the gang MS-13 in the district.

But the district put up a brick wall. She’d call looking for confirmation of details that one student, named Henry, and his lawyer had given her, only to be told that FERPA prohibited the schools from discussing the students’ cases at all. (FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, is a federal law that governs access to educational information and records of individuals.)

But then, Dreier learned that the district was hosting a completely unrelated weekend fashion show on a snowy day.

“So I went out there, and I drove through the snowstorm. It was terrifying. I’m from California, I didn’t know how to drive in the snow,” Dreier told her audience, laughing.

“But nobody else came to this fashion show, because they were too scared …to drive. And the principal was just standing there at the end, and I think he was also shocked that I was there,” she said. “He ended up giving me a full interview, all about the kid, telling me all the details of what had happened to not only Henry, but some other kids that had been turned over by the school to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] that I didn’t know about.”

The literal extra miles were a turning point in the story for Dreier. It was also a lesson in the value of having the documents in hand before showing up for the interview, she added. That precluded any of the usual stonewalling that might have resulted in records requests, she said.

Following publication, numerous people from across the U.S. stepped up to try and help the students continue their educations, despite being deported, she said. Additionally, the Long Island school district has changed its policies for how school police officers interact with students. And Dreier’s reporting sparked a national conversation about the impact of President Trump’s immigration policies on students.

The impact was also magnified because the students allowed identifying details about themselves to be reported, despite the potential risks to their safety.

“Because we told stories that were based on people, the community paid attention,” Dreier said.