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Five Tips for Education Journalists on Investigative Reporting

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Are you an education reporter looking to do more investigative work but missed the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Phoenix last month? Perhaps the 120-degree heat scared you off. Not to worry: Here are five key lessons courtesy of fellow education reporters as well as journalists working on other beats.

Every story is better with data. Even when you are working on deadline, you should be finding ways to incorporate data, says Tawnell Hobbs, who covers the national education beat at The Wall Street Journal. Hobbs walked IRE attendees through a number of quick data sources she uses. As an example, Hobbs explained how she whipped up a quick but substantative story on the nomination of Betsy DeVos to become U.S. secretary of education. Hobbs focused on how DeVos acted as an architect of the charter and school choice movement in Michigan. Looking at state and national test scores, Hobbs asked whether increased school choice improved outcomes. She then looked at campaign finance reports to figure out to which politicians DeVos had given money. That helped her identify key players in Michigan. Hobbs also looked at charter applications and the authorizer’s detailed responses. All of that information was easily accessible online.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, also detailed her go-to online data sources for finding information: census data, which is often available down to the neighborhood level; Brown University’s U.S. 2010 project, which measures school segregation down to the district level; and data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, which includes information on everything from how experienced teachers are distributed across a district to discipline disparities.

Make freedom of information laws work for you. Of course, not all data is easily accessible online. Often reporters will have to turn to their state’s public information laws. Eva Parks – the producer for the investigative team at KXAS, the NBC affiliate in Dallas – explained how she gets around the biggest FOIA hurdle for education reporters: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal privacy law protecting students’ education records. Often, school districts use FERPA to withhold information that they say could lead to students being identified. Parks likes to acknowledge FERPA right up front and agree to accept redacted documents in her FOIA request. That, Parks says, reduces the response time. She then works with the families she’s planning to profile to get non-redacted versions. Parks said she also knows when to play school districts against one another, asking one district why it can’t supply information that others have. If your FOIA request is denied completely, Jennifer Dixon, a reporter at the Detroit Free Press, recommends asking the public information officer to cite the specific provision of the state’s public information law that allows them to deny that request.

So you have the data. Now what? Brandon Quester – the director of data and visuals at inewsource, a nonprofit newsroom based in San Diego – walked through a series of data tools that are free, or at least relatively inexpensive, and easy to learn. Say you’ve gotten a PDF with a spreadsheet. With Tabula, you can input a PDF and it will spit out an Excel spreadsheet. Cometdocs is a nifty tool for PDF documents that are saved images – those that are not text searchable. Cometdocs lets you upload those PDFs and create searchable versions. Are you trying to do visualizations without an expert in your newsroom? QGIS is an open source platform for mapping your data. Additionally, Quester says Tableau, a popular data visualization tool, has a slightly steeper learning curve but it’s worth the time and effort. Are you thinking about trying SQL? Quester says become “a ninja” in Excel and then go from there to SQLite.

Data + voices = compelling reporting. While data will inform most great investigative stories, creating a narrative with strong characters will make your coverage more compelling. “If you pick a poor example, only your mom will read the story,” says Ellen Gabler, an investigative reporter at The New York Times. “If you pick a flawed example, you blow your credibility and you probably won’t have the kind of impact you’d like.”

Gabler suggests going to advocates and lawyers. With lawyers, she likes to ask about the cases they didn’t file. Just because a legal case didn’t work out doesn’t mean they aren’t a great journalistic example. She also has her characters slowly and painstakingly walk through the timeline. Trish Callahan, an investigative reporter at The Chicago Tribune, adds that she channels the most skeptical reader of the story when writing about a character, asking, “Why are they less likely to be moved by the story? How do I acknowledge that and embrace it?” Francisco Vara-Orta, a staff writer at Education Week, says that drawing up three-dimensional characters requires frank and often awkward conversations. “It’s important for transparency to say why you need all of these details about their lives,” said Vara-Orta. “I tell them, ‘I need for folks to really know what you are up against.’ I know it can be embarrassing to say that you live in a hotel, but it’s part of the process to get people to care.’”

Develop a “document state of mind.” Thomas Peele, an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group, says that anytime reporters start work on new stories, they should think about what documents might be available and relevant, and how to get them. Document reporting was key to Jennifer Dixon’s award-winning look inside the charter movement in Michigan. She gathered, among other documents, real estate leases and sales information between charter management companies and schools, information on charter school board members, and charter authorizer agreements and correspondents. Dixon then built a database for every charter school in Michigan: who is the authorizer, who is the management company (if there was one), academic data, whether the management company was for-profit or nonprofit. She then filed FOIAs for the schools that she flagged through her analysis of these documents.

Looking for more ideas? Check out EWA’s Story Lab for mining federal data, and catch a replay of a webinar explaining FERPA.