Blog: Latino Ed Beat

A Lesson in Using Data for Education Stories on Latinos

When investigative reporter Mc Nelly Torres got a parking ticket on a college campus, her first thought wasn’t for her wallet. Instead, her mind raced toward story ideas: Could there be a database of all previous offenses? What’s the most ticketed spot on campus? Which officers give out the most citations?

Torres, who currently works for NBC6 in Miami, co-founded Florida Center for Investigative Reporting in 2010 and has won numerous state, regional and national awards for her work. The self-proclaimed “Watchdog Diva” wrapped up EWA’s first Spanish-Language Media Convening with a session on data usage for education stories.

“Data is often the foundation on important education stories,” Torres said in an email Tuesday. “Education is an area where data is constantly collected and kept by schools, school districts, states and so forth and that’s why it’s important that journalists feel comfortable about working with data to produce high-impact education stories.”

For Latinos or any minority group, it’s especially important because policy changes affect certain demographic groups in education at a greater rate, including funding, teacher experience and performance and others, she said.

“As journalists, we need to be prepared to delve into the unknown, ask questions and report the stories that affect the communities we cover.”  

At the convening, Torres began her presentation by cautioning reporters never to say, “I’m a journalist. I can’t do math,” adding, “If we don’t question numbers, how can we do our job?”

Navigating data to use numbers in stories is an important tool for education journalists. According to EWA’s reporter guide on ethics, education reporters should have at least a basic proficiency with spreadsheet and database programs, because state, school districts and college data increasingly are available only in spreadsheet form.

“Reporters will also find that knowledge of these programs enhances their ability to sort, summarize, and analyze education-related data of all types, including test scores. Ideally, education reporters will possess a wide range of data-mining techniques, such as being able to use a tool like Google Correlate to create graphics that enhance their coverage. But at a minimum, they should be fluent in spreadsheet programs like Excel,” it states.

If a school gets an A in the A-F grading system, ask for the formula, Torres said. And in general, ask school districts how they arrive at their calculations. Don’t take the superintendent’s word for it.

During her career, Torres has had a hand in the arrest of a bad contractor and the conviction of a school building architect through the use of data.

Some samples of Torres’ data-heavy work include a story on rising homelessness among Florida students, which used various charts to illustrate the sobering statistics, and a 2012 series on remedial education, or “the 13th grade,” which won an EWA award.

Torres’ story ideas for journalists:

  • Ask school district for database of bus drivers and crosscheck that with driving records, including DUIs.
  • Always keep an eye on school dropout rates, including demographics. Are students in low-income, low-performing schools dropping out in large numbers? Why?
  • Look at the poverty levels and the per-pupil spending on administration versus classroom. What is driving the disparities?

Other helpful hints on collecting data:

  • Test scores, discipline data, expulsions, violent crime counts by school and by district, free and reduced lunch statistics, demographics and licenses for teachers and staff are all stored in a database you can request. Find out when the data is collected and the costs. Ask for it on a CD.
  • Get to know the person who collects data and the FOIA officers so the process go smoothly each time you request.
  • Train your sources to prepare certain information on a regular basis.
  • Collect expenditure reports – the district’s checkbook – including payroll, annual reports, comprehensive annual financial reports, employment contracts and audits to see where the money in the school district is going.
  • Look at your state department of education and what data they have to develop story ideas. Also, search for any research that has been done on the topic you want to write about but be aware which group is behind the research.

For more on using data in education coverage and to view Torres’ notes on the topic, visit www.ewa.org/presentations.