Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Secrets of Covering STEM: Tips from Reporters and Editors

EWA recently held a seminar on STEM education and student skills at the University of Southern California. We asked some of the reporters who participated to contributes posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Brian McVicar of the Grand Rapids Press. You can find out more about STEM education on EWA’s topic pages. 

For education reporters, today’s increasingly fast-paced world of online reporting offers opportunities to connect with readers through social media, but the rush to get the story first also jeopardizes values such as context and narrative storytelling.

Those were remarks made during the panel “Covering STEM Education Without Losing or Offending the Audience” at EWA’s STEM and Beyond Conference at the University of Southern California on Feb. 21-22.

Panelists said it’s important for journalists to use social media and the web to engage with sources and readers in new ways. But, at the same time, reporters should strive to include context and embrace narrative storytelling, especially when diving into a topic as complex as STEM education.

“The best stories are the ones that grab you, with human tales and narrative,” said Beth Shuster, education editor at The Los Angeles Times, who moderated the panel.

During the discussion, participants spoke with reporters about where to find tools to sharpen their digital storytelling, how to produce stories with more context when facing daily deadlines and how to make the most out of interviews.

Robert Hernandez, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, told reporters to visit a website where they could access free digital storytelling tools to create elements such as data visualizations and 360 degree panoramic pictures.

 “You can do multimedia storytelling,” he said. “You can experiment with some digital stuff without losing your mind.”

Bill Celis, a former education reporter at The New York Times who’s now an instructor at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, discussed why reporters should strive to include as much context and analysis as possible.

He said the pressure on reporters to produce stories more quickly has, in some instances, “significantly eliminated some of the context and analysis.” One way to change that is to include more background before linking to an academic study in an online story, he said.

 “You can’t expect readers to hit a link and wade through a 30 page report,” he said. “So to protect yourself when you’re assembling your work for the web, I would insist on a couple lines that anchors this link.”

Reporters also told panelists about the challenges they face when seeking to produce in-depth enterprise stories while maintaining daily beat coverage.

Celis suggested reporters follow a strategy that worked for him when he worked at the Wall Street Journal. He told the audience that after producing several daily stories during the week on one topic, he would then use those stories as a jumping-off point for a short term in-depth piece.

“I could keep my byline up, and I wasn’t just producing for the inside of the paper,” he said. “I think even in this very, very fast paced world all of you work in, embracing, coming up with a model like that may help you produce more substantive weekenders.”

With journalists facing pressure to turn out more and more copy, panelists discussed how reporters can get the most out of their interviews.

Shuster, the L.A. Times editor, said when reporters get experts on the phone, they should interview them about two or three topics. The same goes for reporters who are visiting schools to talk with students or administrators.

“That’s really crucial in our world now – doing one interview with one expert on three topics,” she said. “I think that really does help in terms of time.”


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