Blog: The Educated Reporter

How They Did the Story: Tips From Award-Winning Reporters

Tim Lloyd of St. Louis Public Radio talks with reporters at EWA's 68th National Seminar in Chicago. (EWA/Mikhail Zinshteyn)

It was quietly proud grandfather and Vietnam War Veteran James Dent who grabbed reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones’ attention in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

For St. Louis reporter Tim Lloyd, it was an African-American middle-school teacher unnerved when a white driver pulled up beside him at a stoplight and pointed his fingers at him in a shooting gun motion.

And while journalist Sara Neufeld nearly pulled the plug twice on telling the story of a fragile 12-year-old boy, sharing the tale of one ambitious Newark, N.J., school principal was a no-brainer.

“As soon as I met this guy, Erskine Glover … it’s like I knew I had found the one. It was like dating,” Neufeld said.

Characters we can root for, or shake our heads at, are critical ingredients of successful storytelling. It was the nuts and bolts of finding those sources — and keeping them on board —  that intrigued the audience of reporters as they quizzed their colleagues on their award-winning work at the Education Writers Association’s recent National Seminar in Chicago.

Revealing their methods (but not their next projects) at the session “How I Did the Story” were three journalists who invested time, and a little angst, into finding the people who gave already solid topics a soul to stick in readers’ memories.

The audience of education journalists asked about the conundrums they encounter routinely on the job, but don’t always vocalize: What are my responsibilities to a willing, but vulnerable source with no media savvy? How much detail should I use when reporting on children? And how do I convince someone to let me witness some of the most raw moments of their lives, yet live up to my obligation to be unflinchingly candid with readers?

Neufeld, with The Hechinger Report, spent three years chronicling the travails of Quitman Street Renew School, which resulted in her special report, A Promise to Renew. The series earned her a first prize in one category at EWA’s National Awards for Education Reporting.

After writing several stories that focused on the what and why and how, Neufeld said the missing piece was to convey what it was like to be a child living in the neighbourhood Quitman school serves. They were the hardest stories to tell.

Enter D’Andre, a 12-year-old boy defying all the stereotypes of his upbringing and demographic — at least, for now. Both D’Andre and the grandmother who raised him gave Neufeld access to their home and their stories. D’Andre’s mother was not an enthusiastic source, and left town the day the story of her son was published.

Although D’Andre was thriving in school, Neufeld described his success as “fragile,” prompting the journalist to question whether telling his story was the right thing to do. Becoming a parent has made her particularly sensitive to how she covers children, she said.

“I was afraid that some of the details that were emerging, I couldn’t withhold as a reporter telling the story honestly, but I was worried they would end up being painful for him when they came out,” Neufeld said.

Although Neufeld acknowledged that she had the luxury of time many of reporters on daily deadlines don’t enjoy, she made an effort to get to know her child subjects, learning details about their lives that were well beyond the scope of the story.

Be up front and specific with sources about what details you plan to use in a story, Neufeld advised. For the first time in her 15-year journalism career (and with her editor’s permission, of course) Neufeld also showed the story to D’Andre and his grandmother before it was published. They didn’t demand any changes.

The ultimate barometer of her work, though, is her mom, she said. Neufeld sends drafts of her stories to help weed out any education jargon that might trip up the public, and to flag any details that scream, “You’re a disgusting journalist that you’re putting that into print.”

For reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones of Pro Publica, remaining candid about her ambitions was pivotal to her success in covering the lingering racial segregation of schools in the south. Her work earned her first prize for beat reporting at a medium-sized general news outlet, and the EWA’s grand prize for distinguished education reporting.

One of the standout features of her coverage followed three generations of one family in Tuscaloosa as the segregation of black and white pupils boomeranged towards, then away from, progress.

As a national reporter, it’s tough to gain the trust and access some local beat reporters have worked years to cultivate, she said. Calling the superintendent in advance to explain the project helped her gain “unprecedented access” to Central High School, where three generations of the Dent family attended school.

With 50 years of social and political history to condense into a feature, finding characters was essential.

“To get people to go through that much history, I had to find some way to make it personal,” she said. “People care about the individuals, not concepts.”

Melissa, the mother in Hannah-Jones’ story, was reluctant from the start. Still, Hannah-Jones repeated that the story was destined to run in The Atlantic, potentially on the newsstand at every airport in the country. You can’t sugar-coat the potential implications of participating.

“We have what we want (access to a souce’s story), and we need to also think much more about what will be the impact on our sources — especially those who aren’t savvy,” Hannah-Jones said. “I think we need to be very conscious about what we’re asking people to do that could have long-term effects on them when we’ve moved onto our next story.”

It’s not a reporter’s job to convince one specific source to be in an issue-based story. It’s a reporter’s job to find a suitable and willing one.

St. Louis Public Radio education beat reporter Tim Lloyd was dunked into covering racial tension when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown in August 2014.

It didn’t matter what his regular beat was. Every journalist working in St. Louis became a breaking news reporter on the Ferguson situation, sometimes working in hazardous conditions, Lloyd said.

While the national and international media descended on Ferguson, he looked for different voices to include in his coverage. By following a community health outreach group, he found sources other outlets hadn’t.

“You guys are the first people to come check on me,” said one woman living in an apartment block near the shooting site. “And the eyes of the world are literally 100 yards away,” Lloyd added.

Lloyd took home first prize for broadcast beat reporting at this year’s EWA awards.

Among his noteworthy pieces are the A Teachable Moment reports, which delved into how schools approached students about the explosive issue on their doorsteps.

He wanted to know how religious schools full of mostly rich, white kids, were handling the topic. Most of them had no personal connection to the events in the news.

What he found were teachers who relied on Ferguson as a tool to discuss their faith, emphasizing the importance of compassion and community service.

Whether it’s a school district in damage-control mode, or a character hesitant to talk about her experience, Neufeld pointed to the value of just being a good listener.

“I think people just want to be listened to. And that’s human. People like it when you go and want to hear about their lives and want to understand what they do. They’ll tell you stuff, and you never know how that will end up working as a detail in your story.”