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From Student Loans to Special Ed., Tips for Investigative Journalism

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Reporters embarking on an investigative project should focus on a single, simple question and be relentless about answering it.

That’s the approach taken by journalists Brian Rosenthal and Annie Waldman, who offered tips during a panel at the Education Writers Association’s 2017 National Seminar in Washington, D.C. Waldman, of ProPublica, looked closely at New Jersey’s remarkably consumer-unfriendly student loan program. Rosenthal reported for the Houston Chronicle on Texas’s surprising efforts to cap special education services even for high-need students. He is now with The New York Times.

“Both of these reporters each came up with a single, simple question that they focused all of their work on. That’s important. These are huge topics,” said Mark Horvit, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism who moderated the panel. “If you’re not careful, you go in too many directions and get nothing done.”

Waldman’s and Rosenthal’s work demonstrates how, even in an era of downsized newsrooms, journalists continue to change lives and influence public policy through powerful data analysis and storytelling.

While reporting the ProPublica story, Waldman got a tip encouraging her to look into predatory student loans in New Jersey. She found that New Jersey had the nation’s largest state-based program, with stringent terms and a record of aggressive collections.

Though advertised as superior to federal student loans, New Jersey’s loans offered no income-driven repayment, and borrowers who found themselves unemployed or facing other economic hardships were granted few reprieves. In the wake of Waldman’s reporting, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in December signed a bill requiring the state’s student loan agency to forgive the loans of borrowers who die or become permanently disabled.

Rosenthal was a statehouse reporter in the Austin bureau of the Houston Chronicle when he came across data showing Texas identified a smaller proportion of students for special education services than any other state. He wondered why just 8.5 percent of school children in Texas were in special education, compared with the nationwide average of 13.1 percent.

That led Rosenthal to uncover a state policy directing the state’s 1,200 districts to cap special education enrollment at an arbitrary level, he said.

One Thousand Interviews

Rosenthal’s seven-part series, “Denied,” dug into how schools dealt with pressure to reduce special education rolls, and how families then struggled to get services for their children. The project prompted a review by the U.S Department of Education; ultimately, the federal agency ordered Texas to end the policy.

Rosenthal said he conducted an estimated 1,000 interviews over the 10 months he worked on the project. It sounds like a lot, but he averaged about three interviews a day.

“You can get a lot of calls in if you keep at it,” he said.

Waldman said she reached out to more than 200 families and conducted more than 60 in-depth interviews for her piece — many of them in the evenings and on weekends. She also retrieved documents from families, including promissory notes, emails and letters from their attorneys.

“I wanted to be absolutely sure before putting this story out there that, indeed, I could even use the word, ‘predatory.’ That’s a really strong word. It’s used mainly for private loans and for-profit colleges,” Waldman said.

“I wanted to ensure that everyone had somewhat of a similar experience,” she said. “It seemed that nearly every single person I spoke to had a terrible experience.”

Waldman advises reporters to develop a question that they hope to answer using data before beginning data analysis. In her case, she wanted to know whether the state student loan agency had become more aggressive over time in pursuing borrowers in court.

‘The Man Behind the Curtain’

Her primary data source turned out to be the state’s archaic, searchable case-management system.

“Find the ‘man behind the curtain,’” Waldman advised.

She found the technical expert within the state court system who maintained the database and sought guidance on how best to handle the data. She recommended that reporters always verify the process they use with experts.

Waldman also submitted records requests to discover why the state agency had become so aggressive. That prompted an agency employee to contact her and confidentially provide some insider information.

To protect the employee, Waldman tried to avoid an unnecessary paper trail in her communications with him, and the employee purchased a burner cell phone.

Waldman recommended tools such as PGP, an encryption program for messaging; Signal (; and, for a temporary email address that deletes messages after an hour. To find families affected by the loans, Waldman pulled a list of liens from the Accurint database (a LexisNexis product).

She also used consumer reviews posted on websites such as Yelp and Google to locate individuals. One parent had started a petition on seeking to rehabilitate the state’s loan program, which connected Waldman to still more affected families.

Rosenthal found families to inform his Houston Chronicle series by consulting advocacy groups that often knew people affected by the policy. To cast a wider net, he also connected with families through Facebook groups.

He posted on the pages of various groups within the special-needs community, or contacting their administrators to post on his behalf, he said.

“I was very open about what I was doing and my goal was to be completely clear and say what we were doing and why we were doing it, and give some background about me, as well,” Rosenthal said.

That was how he found parents who pulled their 7-year-old out of school after being denied special education services again and again, despite a disability similar to autism. He became a central character in one of Rosenthal’s stories.

Rosenthal won the top EWA prize in the 2016 National Awards for Education Reporting, the Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting. (Hear his acceptance speech, and an interview about his project, on EWA Radio).

Waldman’s series was a finalist for investigative reporting for the 2016 National Awards for Education Reporting in the category of large staff General News Outlets. She spoke with EWA Radio about her project last fall.