What it’s like being a rookie education reporter

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A journalist reflects on the experience of being new to the education beat.

By Amber C. Walker

It’s a little strange not to be attending school board meetings or filing data requests right now.

That’s because for the past two years I covered K-12 education for the Capital Times in Madison, WI, writing about racial disparities, local education policy, and the trials and triumphs of our students.

Last spring, I decided to go back to school for a master’s program in journalism at New York University, where I’ve now started taking classes.

Reflecting on the challenges and successes of my first two years as an education reporter, I can tell you that there was an early shakedown period of low confidence. “Imposter syndrome” plagued many moments.

But my relationship-building skills helped me enormously, as did a network of outside supports. I used my role as the only African-American reporter covering the Madison schools as a focal point of my work.

Now I can see that my nontraditional path into education journalism was a strength.

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Walker (center, dark blue shirt) during her pre-journalism days as a classroom teacher in Miami.

Before I started covering education, I worked as a community organizer, taught high school English as a Teach for America corps member in Miami, FL, completed a 10-week boot camp in coding, and interned at a digital news start-up.

The summer before I moved to Wisconsin to start reporting, I led a group of new teachers through their first few weeks of teaching. The collective charge was, “above all else, relationships matter.”

That idea served me well on the education beat.

Fundamentally, an education reporter’s job is to inform the public through great storytelling that represents multiple facets of the communities we cover.

Meeting that goal means authentically connecting with students, teachers, administrators, community partners, and other players in the education landscape. Doing it well requires intention and tenacity.

I tried my best to show up not only to the weekly board of education meetings and school visits, but to football games, poetry slams, and other leisure spaces where students and their families frequented. I don’t have any children of my own, so it was also a great way to connect with folks outside of my peer group. Maintaining an active presence in the community during the fun times made it more likely that sources would pick up the phone when things went south.

For example, I met Madison parent Mattie Reese while filling in for a community radio show host who was out of town for vacation. When Reese’s son faced extended juvenile detention, she trusted me enough to tell me her story. As it turned out, her son had been the subject of a negative letter from his school, for behavior that had nothing to do with his juvenile court record. This raised controversial questions about whether school employees had the right to interfere, unasked, in a student’s interaction with the court system. I accompanied Reese on some very personal moments, including meetings with court officials, social workers, and her child’s school.

I would have missed Reese’s story if I hadn’t made it a point to build authentic relationships in whatever spaces I occupy.

Amber C Walker madison com

The author’s story page at the Capital Times

Turnover on the education beat was high in my newsroom, with three reporters covering the Madison schools in the last four years. In the beginning, institutional sources would try to give me the runaround. You know how this looks: not returning calls and emails, talking around questions, commenting on “How easy it was to work with your predecessor.”

Gaining a working knowledge of the history of education helped me feel like an expert on my beat.

As Nikole Hannah-Jones told a group of education reporters during her keynote address at a Poynter Institute seminar last year, how can you talk about educational inequity if you haven’t read the Brown vs. Board of Education opinion? Any new reporter can consult the archive or ask the newsroom librarian, if their news organization is lucky enough to have one, about what moments in the educational landscape were covered extensively in the previous ten years.

Taking the time to learn about watershed moments also armed me with the context I needed for my reporting. When the time comes to file a FOIA request for documents or hold that accountability interview with district officials, having the names, ballpark dates, and a narrative reduces the opportunity for spin.

One of my last stories about the expansion of an early childhood center into a K-2 school under a new state charter is a good example. The growth of the school in and of itself was newsworthy, but I knew from backgrounding my beat that its leader had made an earlier attempt to start a charter high school for African-American boys in the district in order to address the achievement gap between black and white students in Madison.

Because I already knew the key history, I was able to ask more pointed questions and beef up that story from a one-off daily piece to a feature.

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Walker and her Capital City colleagues at her going-away celebration.

Building relationships also helped with filling in blind spots. Yes, journalists are expected to remain objective in our reporting, but we are also people who bring our life experience into the newsroom every day. That includes our values, our biases, and our communities.

I was the only African-American education reporter in the city — and one of just two people of color in my 16-person newsroom. I felt the weight of my distinction every day. However, I saw it not as a burden but as an opportunity to alter the culture of our newsroom in positive, more inclusive ways.

Madison’s public schools had become “majority-minority” in the last nine years. However, the surrounding county is one of the worst places in the country for African-Americans in terms of incarceration, health outcomes, and educational achievement.

In addition, there has been a glaring lack of intentional, positive coverage on people of color in Madison, so much so that a group of local journalists created Madison365, an outlet focused on telling their stories. Some of my colleagues in the mainstream media would overlook simple things such as finding neutral images of African-American murder victims instead of running convenient mugshots. It’s hard for kids of color to find any positive representations of themselves in their local news.

I maintained a strong presence in the schools not only as a watchdog but as a positive representation for students. Growing up, I benefited from seeing African-American women in positions of influence. Here was as an opportunity to pay it forward. Whenever I could provide students a glimpse of my work — whether it was talking to a journalism class about reporting, reading to students during Black History Month, or organizing a tour of my newsroom — I’d do it.

One of my favorite things to do was visit Simpson Street Free Press, Madison’s citywide youth newspaper. The program has several bureaus in schools and community centers around Madison, including one in my newsroom. I’d connect with the students, find out what they were reporting on, and share my work with them.

When the Simpson Street Free Press covered my graduate school announcement, it solidified for me that my work mattered to the most important demographic of people for my beat: the students.

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I look back with some pride with my time spent covering Madison schools but also feel tremendous gratitude for the larger community of education journalists. The Education Writers Association’s listserv and website were excellent resources when I needed everything from an expert source on federal student privacy law to help diving into my first set of state test data. EWA also provided funding for me to attend their annual conference and a few of their monthly seminars to connect with other education reporters around the country and learn more about key topics on the K-12 beat. This network is extensive and brilliant and I felt comfortable seeking its help when needed.

I also took advantage of EWA’s New to the Beat program for rookie education reporters, where I worked on a feature story with veteran reporter Leslie Brody, who covers the New York City region for the Wall Street Journal. The resulting story was about the growing racial diversity of Madison’s student body, and the struggle for the district to mirror that same diversity in its teaching force.

It was a bear of a story, with a lot of themes and competing opinions, and I didn’t know where to start. Leslie’s advice for that story was simple, but it guided every education piece I wrote from that day forward: Keep in mind the importance of asking, “Why does this matter for kids?” The idea of keeping students at the center of education reporting will help the narrative fall into place.

Leslie and I kept in touch after I turned in my project, and she’s served as a sounding board for everything from my anxieties about applying to grad school to navigating reporter-editor relationships.

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My path into journalism wasn’t traditional. I am the first in my family to graduate from college. I didn’t major in journalism in college, serve as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, or enter the field with a portfolio of great clips.

Despite all my previous experiences in other fields, my internal dialogue was demoralizing, “Do I know what I’m doing? Do I deserve to be here?”

However, as I look back I also realize that my hodgepodge of experiences was actually an asset, not a deficit.

As an organizer, I was used to walking door-to-door to gather information from a community about an issue; it’s classic shoe-leather beat reporting. It also meant I was comfortable getting out into the city to talk to students and parents about education issues that were important to them and include those themes in my coverage.

My teaching background helped with building credibility and gaining trust with district employees because I could fully understand their work. My IT experience made me more comfortable with data-assisted reporting.

There is no one “right” way to prepare for being a reporter.

AMBER C. WALKER is a first-year graduate student at NYU’s Arthur Carter Journalism Institute in the digital journalism and innovation concentration. You can read her clips from Madison here. You can follow and reach her at @acwalker620.

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