Blog: The Educated Reporter

EWA National Awards for Education Reporting: Tips and Tools From Past Winners

EWA is now accepting entries for our 2013 National Awards for Education Reporting. You can find all the pertinent details here. We’ve added some new categories this year, including data journalism and education organizations and experts.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to look back at some of the winners of the 2012 contest, who were featured at our 66th National Seminar at Stanford University in May. Today’s guest blogger is education reporter and editor Cathy Grimes of the Daily Press in Hampton Roads, Va. 

Think your sources are slow responding to your FOIA requests? Try waiting more than 12 years for the data you need to tell an important story about truant students. David Jackson and Gary Marx, of the Chicago Tribune, were among five reporters and writers who shared the challenges, strategies and rewards of their prize-winning stories during a session at EWA’s National Seminar.

Jackson and Marx won the 2013 Fred. M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Reporting for their series “An Empty-desk Epidemic,” an investigation of absenteeism in the Chicago Public Schools district. Jackson said he made his first FOIA request for CPS data in 1999, asking for data on student and attendance tracking. He and Marx kept at it for more than a decade, a span of time that included Jackson’s Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University during which he actually managed to get the data he needed, but as a researcher rather than a reporter. He could not use that data for stories, but it helped him to identify more specifically what he needed, enabling him to finally able to get the redacted data.

But that saga was only part of the story. Jackson and Marx haunted Chicago schools. They went “every single day” and visited schools, talking with administrators and building relationships and trust. Eventually principals shared information that led the two to families and students. As Marx noted, these sources were crucial.

“How do you bring a story to life?” he asked. “It has a data spine, but needs people.”

The two said the keys to their ability to find the compelling stories were transparency and trust. They told the administrators, parents and students what they were doing.

“We left it up to the parents as to whether we were on or off the record. They could change at any time.”

Colorado Public Radio’s Jenny Brundin also built trust while reporting her prize-winner, “Trevista,” a look at a turnaround school in the process of change.

Originally she wanted to tell the story of the school through four characters. That strategy did not work, so she followed the story chronologically, finding characters for each segment that provided the frame and voices for it.

“Good radio is really about storytelling,” she said.

Brundin said she routinely records lots of tape, capturing active sound, not just static voices. She works to reveal emotion and humor through her subjects, whether student, teacher or parent. Such efforts also reveal the relationships among her subjects. She also used suspense. For instance, for her story on what the impending changes could mean, she focused on three teachers who might lose their jobs. She ended the segment with a cliff-hanger that was not resolved until the next part of the story.

Brundin said access to the school and the people in it became a problem as the stories progressed. She said in hindsight she wished she had negotiated an access agreement with the district superintendent. But she was persistent and was able to continue sharing chapters with her listeners.

Writer Peg Tyre, whose “The Writing Revolution” was published in The Atlantic, began working on her story two years before she talked to an editor. She had been researching and writing a book focused on what is supposed to happen in classrooms.

She immersed herself in research about learning and how the brain works, and while doing so, kept hearing about “a school on Staten Island that was doing amazing things.”

When she finally visited the school, she found it “was an example of the research,” and she also found a student who provided the narrative frame for her story about a successful writing program.

“From that point on, I was hooked,” she said.

Tyre said her greatest challenge was in the writing. She essentially was writing about a program focused on the mechanics of writing — grammar — but she did not want to use the word. She succeeded. Instead, she wrote about a program that demonstrated “what actually helps kids learn.”

Benjamin Herold of WHYY/Philadelphia Public School Notebook offered a close look at a week of big news in education in his community: a vote on school closings in Philadelphia. His work earned him a first-place award for beat reporting.

Herold talked about maximizing partnerships and platforms. Prior to the vote on the closures, which was breaking news, he worked on an enterprise package examining which schools students were attending and which ones they were fleeing. That work published online included an interactive data map and print, audio and photo components. What drove the map and the story, Herold said, were the data showing students living in school boundaries and those who attended schools outside the boundaries.

When Herold reported on the vote, he even recorded it, so listeners could hear the roll call and the results.

Beyond the reporting, Herold used social media sites, such as Twitter to engage in conversation with readers. He tweeted 10 top things people might have missed, then compiled the tweets and other elements in Storify.

He also worked the relationships with other programs at the station, including a stint as guest host on one program, which helped extend the story.