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Power to the Pupil: The Case for Using More Student Voice in Your Reporting

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The Institute for Higher Education Policy is known for issuing wonky, data-heavy reports. So why did the Washington-based think tank just issue a report focused on the personal stories of 17 low-income students struggling with inadequate financial aid?

“We realized those data only take us so far in the story,” said Mamie Voight, IHEP’s vice president of policy research. For example, she added, IHEP’s finding that some low-income undergraduates have to come up with more than their family’s annual income to cover each year’s cost of attendance becomes more striking when you hear from a mother of three about having to work three jobs to raise those funds and support her family.

Journalists, too, have found that while it may be faster to simply write a “numbers” story, adding illustrative student voices can make data-driven stories more interesting and more powerful.

Why make the effort to include student voices?

In fact, studies have shown facts such as data that conflict with a person’s worldview don’t typically change minds. The phenomenon known as confirmation bias – in which people only seek information that reaffirms their worldview – has been deepened by an increasingly partisan climate and mistrust of mainstream media.

But personal stories are different. In a 2016 study, Cornell University researchers analyzed the Reddit thread r/ChangeMyMind, where users post a symbol if their views were changed by others’ posts in the thread. Among the most effective persuaders, according to the researchers: using specific examples.

In addition, cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot, author of the 2017 book, “The Influential Mind,” found that emotional appeals tend to be more persuasive than facts.

Inspiring examples 

Reporters who make an effort to feature student voices in their stories have found that work pays off personally and professionally. Several of the finalists and winners of the 2018 National Awards for Education Reporting were for data-supported stories that personalized trends by featuring students.

The Washington Post’s John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich gathered data on school shootings to point to the fact that while most attention is given to white student victims, the reality was black and Latinx students experienced higher rates of gun violence.

The series included heartbreaking accounts from students who witnessed violence or felt fear from going through lockdown drills. In one story, two 12-year-old boys wrote wills because they were afraid they’d die at school.

Another piece in the series uses a detailed first-hand account of a 15-year-old girl, describing her taking photos with her friend in the moments before a shooting, giving a play-by-play in the trauma she faced to illustrate the senselessness and chaos experienced by young students during shootings.

David Jesse of the Detroit Free Press found that adding students’ comments about struggles with affordability enlivened and humanized his analysis of the ways the University of Michigan was spending (or, rather, not spending) its endowment.  One student he talked to, Libby Gazley, told Jesse that while she had received enough financial aid to cover tuition, she was struggling to cover her living expenses. She was working for a non-profit that helped poor families in subsidized housing in their kitchen, but often was low on food supplies herself. So her supervisor allowed her to access the food pantry the organization maintained for its clients.

How to feature more students

Of course, reporters under increasing productivity pressure often feel they simply can’t afford the time needed to search out students affected by their topic who are knowledgeable and willing to be interviewed. The Education Writers Association asked our members to share techniques for finding and adding student voice efficiently.

“Sometimes it can be a little bit harder,” to include student voices, “but it’s not as hard as you think,” advised Laura Isensee of Houston Public Media.

Among the EWA members’ suggestions: reach out to student organizations, use social media, and stick with traditional shoe-leather reporting such as attending events, and making efforts to meet  students in person.

Organizations: One of the most efficient ways to connect with students is to ask for help from organizations – and not just those associated with the issue you are working on.

Jesse of the Free Press found Gazley because he connected with the Ann Arbor nonprofit she worked at, for example. Linda Jacobson of Education Dive, a national publication, said she tries hard to interview students who weren’t referred to her by the school or program she is writing about, to make sure that she isn’t getting a biased or cherry-picked view.

Jacobson said she tries to find parent groups other than the school’s parent teacher associations, and to check in with community coordinators hired by the city or outside nonprofits that work with schools or students. One organization she has found helpful is Student Voice, which trains young journalists and advocates for student-centered responses to education issues.

Chris Maximos, a Student Voice coordinator, encouraged reporters to reach out to students through independent organizations like his.

“Students really like to be heard,” he said. “They’re really enthusiastic and vocal when issues affect them, if reporters take the first step and access these students.”

Social media: Several education journalists told EWA they have found that they have more success connecting with students using social media than email. Many student-run organizations monitor their social media accounts more attentively than their generic email inbox, they said. So a direct message on Twitter or Facebook may get more attention.

While tweeting out a request may be a reporter’s go-to strategy these days, and Facebook’s audience is aging, Facebook can still be a useful sourcing tool, said Claire McNeill of the Tampa Bay Times. She used Facebook to contact Ronny Ahmed, a Florida State University student who had been shot on campus and was now a parapalegic – a story that was part of a package that won her finalist status in the 2018 National Awards for Education Reporting.

Emily Walkenhorst of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette prefers Facebook to Twitter for sourcing undergraduates because it allows for more targeted search.

IRL: Often, nothing beats the old-fashioned technique of simply visiting with students in person. Jesse often takes his laptop to the University of Michigan’s student union and works from there, keeping his ears open to hear what’s on students’ minds. He said he’ll approach students without a notebook or recorder and talk to them for a minute to explain who he is, then follow up with contact information.

McNeill has walked up to students on campus and handed them surveys for a piece she was working on. She also recommends talking to more students than you need by following a reporting chain: Ask every student for other students to talk to. McNeill is only satisfied when her notebook has more student information than she can possibly use. That gives her context and a range of views, and the ability to choose a few students who seem representative of the larger group.

Tips for interviewing students

While most reporters emphasized that you should treat students like most other sources, dealing with young people often requires reporters to take extra care and effort.

  • Minor protection: Reporters must get parental consent when interviewing anyone under the age of 18, for example. And some experts suggest journalists avoid fully publicly identifying minors with first and last names.
  • More transparency: After working with students on a student diaries project, Isensee of Houston Public Media developed a set of rules: Set clear meeting times, be explicit and transparent about the reporting process, and show the students examples of what you’re planning. Isensee sat down with students and listened to examples of other stories so she could get the best results out of their interviews.

Taylor McGraw, the founder of The Bell, a podcast that features students’ views on important topics, suggested reporters recruit sources among the student population with the effort and care they use to recruit adult “experts.”

“At the end of the day I don’t think journalists need to treat students a whole lot differently than other sources,” he said. “They should be treated as legitimate experts.”

And, in fact, they are experts – experts at what it is like to be a student today. So cultivating student sources should be an ongoing process, not just one-offs used to add color to the story at the top.