‘How I Did the Story’ – EWA’s Grand Prize Winner on Covering School Segregation
Nikole Hannah-Jones’ examination of school segregation – a piece she wrote for ProPublica — won this year’s Hechinger Grand Prize in EWA’s annual education reporting contest. Hannah-Jones joined the staff of The New York Times Magazine in May. We asked her to share some of her thoughts and ideas gleaned during her reporting of the project.
When I set out to write a story on school segregation, I had three major goals in mind. One, I was not going to do another story pointing out that school resegregation was occurring where it seems as if no one is responsible. Two, I was going to use strong investigative and data reporting to show not just the scope of the resegregation but also how it happened. Three, I was going to go further than just data by using strong narrative to demonstrate how little has changed since Brown v. Board.
Using National and Student-level Data
Identifying the scope of the problem is key. Unfortunately, I learned early on that the data I needed did not exist. Shockingly, there was no comprehensive, up-to-date database of all the school districts ever placed under a court order to desegregate. We would have to create one.
I thought this would take a few weeks. I was wrong. A small team spent several months tracking down the status of every school district known to have been under such an order. We found that many records had been lost. Significant numbers of school districts had no idea whether they were under court order or not. I ended up turning that fact into its own story.
Luckily, you all do not have to replicate this research. We created a searchable database that can be used for local reporting.
After identifying how many districts had been under court desegregation orders and how many had been closed, we then used student race data from the U.S. Department of Education to track how segregation had increased or decreased over time. We then used that data to pinpoint which school districts had resegregated most rapidly after being released from the court’s mandate to integrate. This data led us to Tuscaloosa, Ala., the local story we decided to use to illustrate the national phenomenon.
Once in Tuscaloosa, we made multiple public records requests in order to access a host of demographic and schools data. For instance, we requested information on course offerings, test scores, teacher training and quality.
We used this to map the school and residential segregation patterns in Tuscaloosa over time, as well as to assess school quality of the city’s most segregated and most integrated high schools.
We used other data to challenge conventional wisdom and to hold school officials accountable. For instance, many officials in Tuscaloosa blamed the segregation of black students on housing patterns. So we requested the attendance zone map and mapped school locations and neighborhood demographics to reveal that in fact, extreme levels of gerrymandering had led to much of the segregation. This gerrymandering, unlike housing patterns, is something for which you can hold officials accountable.
Archival Information and Public Records
This project was based on a significant amount of historic research. I read newspaper accounts going back three decades. I searched the local library for old schools reports, yearbooks and clippings. I spent hours and hours perusing records at the federal courthouse. This was important to be able to tell a thorough and insightful story about a subject that everyone already thinks they know. But also, to really be able to hold officials accountable for their decisions and for the empty promises they had made to black students when they chose to do things that resegregated the schools. Further, this reporting was critical to writing a story that had powerful narrative details.
All of the research and data mean nothing if you are not able to get into the schools. I spent several weeks calling local residents and activists to try to get contacts within the schools before I ever touched down in Tuscaloosa. I reached out early and often to the district’s communications department and principals to tell them about the scope of the story and the imperative of accessing the schools. I shared some of my past work with them so it was very clear what type of reporting I would be doing. I was always very open about the story I was telling, but also about my commitment to fairness and accuracy.
I also reached out, as a courtesy, to the local schools reporter. I think it’s important as a matter of respect, when reporting in someone else’s backyard, to let that reporter know you are there instead of letting him or her hear it elsewhere. It builds goodwill and can also help with reporting. Because of this, the local reporter was willing to sit down with me and talk to me about the schools, help lead me to sources, and help me ensure I understood and was presenting things accurately.
Through building these relationships, I was able to get amazing access to the schools, particularly the segregated all-black high school. I could drop into the school any time and spent days and days in classrooms and talking to principals and staff. There is nothing we can do as education reporters that is more powerful than witnessing for ourselves what is happening in schools.
With this access, I feel we should take great responsibility and care. I was always very cautious about getting parental permission to photograph and quote students, because it is one thing to be featured in your local paper. It is quite another to be the face of resegregation in a national magazine.
I knew from the start that getting readers to care about a story full of history, and about an issue that is deeply entrenched and mostly accepted, I would have to find amazing characters that people would invest in.
I decided pretty early on that I wanted to tell this story through three generations of one family. I talked to dozens of students in Tuscaloosa looking for the right one.
Once I found the student, I talked to her and her family at great length about the story, the commitment they’d have to make, and what the story might expose them to.
And then, I just spent lots and lots of time with the family, often without taking out my notebook. I talked things through with the mom and encouraged her to call me at any time with concerns. And before publication, I read all the passages concerning her and her daughter to the mom over the phone.
Late in the reporting, I called the family together to prepare them for what would come. I brought copies of The Atlantic Magazine to make sure that they understood what it would mean to be featured there. I encouraged them to ask me questions and to talk over any fears or worries.
I also do not believe in asking people to share their lives with you and then just dropping them once the story runs. After the story, I stayed in contact with everyone involved, but especially the central family.
I realize that many of you don’t have the time to spend months and months on an investigation. But I’ve linked to the data work we’ve done in hopes that you can use it to do your own reporting. The advantage you have is that you are reporting in your own backyards. You know the players. You know the landscape. You, hopefully, already have access to schools. So, much of the accountability reporting you can do around school segregation in your own communities does not have to take long-term reporting.