7 best practices for education reporters in 2019

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Education reporters share ideas for making their stories better in the year ahead.

By Kristen Doerer

While not everyone makes New Year’s resolutions, all of us want to do our jobs better.

So we asked some of the best education reporters in the country to reflect on what helped them do great work in 2018 and how they aim to up their game even more in the new year.

As you’ll see below, they shared some fascinating and perhaps unexpected suggestions, including rapid-fire FOIA requests, measuring source diversity, and working closer with sources during the writing process.

Not everyone will agree. Take them as resolutions or as occasional reminders; adopt whatever works for you. And if there’s a key practice that’s not on this list, please let us know!

1: GET THOSE CLASSROOM DETAILS

Increasing numbers of education reporters are taking to heart the old adage that students and their classrooms shouldn’t be the afterthoughts of coverage.

“I’m resolving to spend more time in classrooms and schools despite the gatekeepers who sometimes make that difficult,” writes Erin Einhorn, bureau editor of Chalkbeat Detroit. “I’m hoping to include more student, parent and teacher voices in our stories instead of relying so much on experts and policymakers.”

That effort is clear in Einhorn’s recent collaboration with Chastity Pratt Dawsey of Bridge Magazine, called “Moving Costs,” which tells the story of one homeroom class in Detroit. By the eighth grade, student Shantaya Davis “had attended so many schools — at least five — that she couldn’t name them all.” Her voice sets up a story that is accompanied by facts and expert analysis on school churn in Detroit, but the story is guided by the experiences of students and parents.

Other reporters like freelancer Kei-Sygh Thomas are taking a different approach to the same idea. One of Thomas’s goals is to spend time with students outside of reporting, in an effort to “support students in my city and to have the opportunity to learn from them.” She says that helping students with homework and attending events like a student-produced art exhibit allow her “to experience being a teacher, see the kind of strengths and challenges students have.” In so doing, she is also increasing her knowledge of education in an up close and personal way and creating a deep foundation to work from as an education reporter.

Resolution: Get into classrooms at least once a month. If that’s not possible, find students out of school and ask them to describe what’s happening in classrooms. Include their voices in all your work. Need more guidance? Check out EWA’s guide on “How to Make the Classroom Part of the Story.”

2: CULTIVATE SOURCES SERIOUSLY

The tendency to contact sources on an as-needed basis is understandable, but more mindful, regular contacts with educators, advocates, and everyday students and parents outside of immediate reporting needs can lead to much better stories.

You probably know the last time an article of yours was published, but what about the last time you met with a source? Sourcing is nearly as important as a recent byline, according to Bethany Barnes, who recently began her new job at the Tampa Bay Times. “Reporters feel self-conscious if they haven’t had a byline in a while. We should also feel just as worried if we aren’t dedicating time to cultivating sources,” said Barnes. “Sourcing is something I constantly thought about on the beat and was always trying to improve.”

The payoff isn’t always immediate or obvious, Barnes concedes, which can make it hard to persuade editors to allow you to spend time reaching out and meeting new people. Barnes’ strategy is to remind editors of the times additional contacts with sources have paid off, “so they see it as just as valuable as time spent sitting in a meeting.”

Mindful sourcing is especially important on the education beat, says Barnes. “[L]arge swaths of the beat can go uncovered if a reporter isn’t strategic about who they are hearing from” — especially in situations where access to the district is difficult to come by or where district officials like to cherry pick who reporters talk to. “The beat shouldn’t just reflect the loudest or most empowered in a district.”

Even if your sources don’t want to speak on the record — teachers, for example, may be worried about retaliation — they may be happy to point out issues. Deepening your sources might just give you the scent to set you on the trail ahead. And sources are likely to be more willing to speak on the record to a known and trusted reporter who has shown a demonstrated interest in their schools outside of a breaking news situation or a controversy.

Resolution: Set up one coffee a week with a new or old source, even if you don’t have a specific story in the works. A little nervous about how to go about this? Check out NPR’s “The art and skill of working with news sources.”

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3: RAPID-FIRE PUBLIC RECORDS REQUESTS

Some journalists think that public records requests are mostly a tool for investigative reporters working on a specific line of inquiry, but that’s not the only way to look at them.

The Oklahoman’s Ben Felder, who covered the teacher strikes in Oklahoma last year and is now covering the state Capitol, recently set a goal to file an open-records request every day. That’s right. Every day. And he plans on doubling down on that goal for 2019 – even when he doesn’t know exactly what he’s looking for.

“Some of my best open records stories came from requests made when I didn’t know what I was really looking for,” Felder told The Grade via email. “I actually looked at the [public records requests] I made last year and found that for every 10 I filed, I got about 2 or 3 compelling stories … by compelling, I mean a story that was a driver of public policy decisions.”

Last year, Felder requested all sorts of things, including “data for the state’s funding formula that follows students, the student code and amount, and the years the funding follows that student.” The information he received helped him figure out that the state’s bilingual funding remained with students their entire school career — even after the students had become proficient in English.

Felder figures if he can make 200 requests in 2019, he will come up with dozens of high-impact stories he wouldn’t have otherwise found.

Resolution: File one FOIA request a week, even if you don’t have a particular story in mind. Put it on your calendar. Don’t know where to begin? Check out this guide and these 10 tips from Poynter.

4: GIVE THAT HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Reporters and editors can be wary of bogging down pieces with too much backstory, but stories rarely emerge spontaneously, and a key bit of history can add enormous value to the journalism you produce. Sometimes the history is the story.

On Adam Harris’s last day at The Chronicle of Higher Education, the outlet published his story on Mississippi Valley State University, a historically black university underfunded by the state and in trouble.

The piece, titled “They Wanted Desegregation. They Settled for Money, and It’s About to Run Out,” was steeped in historical context — it had to be. In 1975, a group of students sued the state of Mississippi arguing that the state hadn’t done enough to reckon with its past, which was known as the Ayers case. The story Harris tackled was that the funds they won from settling that case are disappearing and will be gone in 2022.

“It would have been near-impossible to tell the story of the Ayers settlement and the dire straits for HBCUs in Mississippi without providing the relevant historical context,” Harris said.

“Nothing is ever happening in a vacuum, so providing readers with where a story is situated in the context of history is incredibly important,” according to Harris. “If anything, it can only serve to deepen and provide more nuance to your reporting.”

He’s taken that approach in his reporting for The Atlantic, most notably “The Little College Where Tuition Is Free and Every Student Is Given a Job.” In order to explain how Kentucky’s Berea College has paid for every enrollee’s education using its endowment, he had to go back to the college’s founding in 1855 and weave through the Civil War and integration during the 20th century.

Resolution: Provide your readers with more historical context, and make sure you know the history of key issues like segregation. Where to begin? One history that’s been recommended time and time again is Dana Goldstein’s Teacher Wars.

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5: DIVERSIFY YOUR SOURCES (IT’S NOT OPTIONAL)

The effect of having sources that all look the same is damaging, and something reporters need to actively battle.

Take a look at the source diversity for your past five stories: how many of your experts are white? How many are men? Compare that with how many women and people of color are quoted. The results may surprise you.

In 2017, Bloomberg Business reporter Ben Bartenstein reviewed his source diversity, focusing on gender diversity, and found only 13 percent were women. Shocked at his own shortcomings, Bartenstein, along with his colleagues, assembled a database of more than 200 prominent women sources. At the end of 2018, when he looked back on the sources he quoted, over half were women.

“There’s some initial legwork in finding new sources. But that is, after all, our job,” Bartenstein tweeted. Not only that, diverse sourcing “gives you a competitive advantage over your competition [and] leads to more interesting and higher impact stories.”

Of course, source diversity isn’t just an issue of gender, and it’s not just an issue for business reporting. In 2016, Tara García Mathewson wrote a pair of columns addressing the need for greater source diversity in education journalism. More diverse sources can help catch blind spots and give you insights in different directions to pursue the story.

Resolution: Set a concrete goal for source diversity in all your work that at least half of your sources are people of color or half are women, or maybe both. Create a database of sources to make this goal easier to achieve. And hold yourself accountable. At the end of the month, review your stories and see how you did. Check out these source databases to help you get going.

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6: HOLD ON TO YOUR SKEPTICISM (JUST NOT TOO TIGHTLY)

When a story sounds too good to be true, know it probably is.

Some education stories we wished were covered with more skepticism earlier: when DC Public Schools kept reporting record graduation rates despite clear warning signs, when the National Education Association claimed an “unprecedented” number of educators were running for office, when gun control advocates began describing school shootings as ubiquitous rather than rare.

Before you pass along that juicy story, much less put your name on it, take a quick look at the sources. Are there any? Are all the sources from school officials or are parent and student voices included as well? Do the numbers cited and the news article or press releases explanation of them appear to make sense?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did just that in 2008 when they saw Atlanta public school’s ever-increasing test scores. Instead of blindly reporting the scores, they included expert analysis, which cast doubt on the scores’ veracity. Soon, a state-ordered investigation found widespread cheating in Atlanta and the scandal was deemed the largest K-12 school cheating scandal in U.S. history.

Of course, skepticism must be balanced. As New York Times reporter Erica Green noted in response to The Grade’s pleading to reporters to question “too good to be true” stories like that of TM Landry (an unaccredited Louisiana high school that faked transcripts to get students into top-tier colleges), “don’t use this as an excuse to stop elevating the voices, achievements, and accomplishments of black children.”

Resolution: Write down a list of items that seem too good to be true as you come across them. At the end of the month or once a quarter revisit them and consider which ones you might make a phone call to inquire into. Other options: Ping Snopes or Politifact, or check with us at The Grade.

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7: NO SURPRISES

While the traditional approach is to keep sources hands-off during the writing process, giving sources a cursory chance to respond before a story gets published, some reporters are involving even minor subjects along the way.

“I’ve vowed to adhere to a practice that Michelle Hackman of The Wall Street Journal laid out during a recent EWA session: No surprises,” Inside Higher Ed’s senior editor Greg Toppo said. “The content of your journalism should never be a surprise to the subject(s) of it. In other words, no matter how bad or embarrassing or damaging your findings, your subject(s) need to know about it (and have a chance to respond to it) before the story appears.”

Hackman told us that ‘no surprises’ journalism is “a core value ingrained in us here at the Wall Street Journal” and confirmed that idea is “to ensure that everyone mentioned in a story, however briefly, has a chance to respond to the way they are being characterized.”

For Hackman, the practice means she bugs people “a crazy number of times” during the reporting and writing process. Most of the time, the organizations or politicians she’s querying don’t have much to say. Other times, however, sources surprise her with the candor of their responses. Hackman points to her story, “After Obama-Era Crackdown, For-Profit Colleges Seek Nonprofit Status,” as one example. After contacting a head of a college she had planned on just writing one or two sentences about, she was able to show that for-profit colleges feel that the “Trump administration is providing them a friendlier atmosphere to convert to non-profit status.” Hackman had long expected that was the case but didn’t expect anyone to say those precise words.

Even if the subject is a minor character — and the piece doesn’t feature any damaging information on them — it’s worth reaching out. Toppo uses the practice all the time and notes that informing a source of a coming story has helped him get a fuller picture. He also notes that the “no surprises” approach gives subjects the opportunity to fact-check small details “that, had they been reported incorrectly, would have undermined the story’s impact.”

Some are taking “no surprises” journalism one step further. The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews has been “showing stories to all sources before publication to check for errors” for 34 years. “But this cannot in any universe be described as best practices since practically no one does it,” he said. “Many newspapers even ban it, including my own … although the Post gave me a waiver.”

Resolution: Reach back out to sources once you’ve finished your first draft to let them know how they are characterized and see if they have more to say. Add their additional information into the revised piece. This means allotting plenty of time during the editing process for follow-ups.

While far from complete, these are interesting ways you might improve your practice for 2019.

Let us know what we left out — or got wrong — here or by tagging us at @thegrade_.

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