Tawnell Hobbs: ‘Always Get the Data’

The Wall Street Journal reporter offers advice about tapping data on the education beat.

Tawnell Hobbs doesn’t shy away from data.

When reporting on credit-recovery programs in public schools, she analyzed U.S. Department of Education figures on the number of students taking those courses. For context, she added stats about the nation’s high school graduation rates, which are climbing, compared to national test scores, which remain flat.

Hobbs, the national K-12 education reporter at The Wall Street Journal, has woven data into news stories on school shootings and gun rights, teacher strikes, and more. Data frequently is front-and-center in her work, such as a story she wrote last year about school districts’ vulnerability to cyber attacks.

She also has shared with fellow journalists crucial lessons on how to follow the money on the education beat, file records requests, and ask the right questions. Hobbs recently recounted how she got her start in data journalism and offered advice to other journalists aspiring to dive into data. (She responded by email to our questions.)

How did you get started in data journalism?

I got started in data journalism in the early 2000s after taking over the Dallas schools beat at The Dallas Morning News. I remember sitting in a school board meeting as the trustees discussed making cuts to balance the budget. One of the trustees asked an administrator how much the district was spending on car allowances and he stumbled through the answer.

I made a note to check on car allowances. I got the database for salaries and stipends and muddled my way through my first analysis, using basic formulas I’d found online. I found that the district was spending a lot more on car allowances than the school board had been told. We ran a story on my findings, titled: “Car Stipends Guzzling Cash – Some in DISD getting large allowances but traveling little.” (DISD is the Dallas Independent School District.) The district ended car stipends for most employees and went to a mileage-reimbursement system. From that point on, I knew that I would always “get the data.”

What was the best advice you’ve gotten about data journalism?

Go into every story with an open mind and let the data lead you. The stories are in the data.

How do you keep your data analysis skills fresh?

Not a week goes by that I’m not working with data, looking for trends, patterns and outliers. The more you use data skills, the better you get at conducting analysis and working with formulas. I also look at research conducted by other entities to see if I can come to the same conclusion using the same dataset – that helps me learn.

You recently wrote an article about students in schools across the country bypassing summer school by taking credit-recovery classes. How did you get the idea for that story, and what steps did you take to pursue it?

I got the idea after noticing that credit-recovery programs had expanded beyond high school and were now starting to show up in middle schools. I called some school districts and they told me how more students were using credit-recovery programs because they didn’t want to attend summer school or be left behind. Luckily, the Civil Rights Data Collection (a database created by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights) now includes data on credit recovery. I discovered that more than half of U.S. high schools offered credit recovery and more than 1 million high school students took at least one course.

You recently shared a byline on an article that included analysis about links between bullying and school shootings. Would you describe the data you collected and the tools you used to analyze it?

In the Santa Fe school shooting, the suspect’s father told The Wall Street Journal that he suspected his son was bullied. We decided to look into bullying at the school. The story required using bullying data from the Civil Rights Data Collection and a database that I created of mass school shooting incidents. We used Excel to pull data from the CRDC for all schools serving high-school grades and all bullying incidents for each campus. I found that thousands of schools had no reported bullying incidents — namely, Santa Fe High School had zero incidents from 2009-10 to 2015-16, the latest school year available. That was contrary to what we were hearing from some parents and students. Using my shooter database, I also found that a majority of mass school shooters were said to be bullied.

What lessons did you learn or what skills did you use in covering school shootings that might be helpful for other journalists?

Be careful with tallies for school shootings. You should know the methodology used to come up with the tally. For instance, was a suicide counted as a school shooting? I maintain a database of mass school shooting incidents. It grows as I think of something new I’d like to track. For instance, I started tracking where shooters get their guns. That analysis led to a story, titled: Most Guns Used in School Shootings Come From Home.

You have repeatedly served as a coach and instructor for other education journalists, offering tips on digging up open records, collecting data, and being a true watchdog on the education beat. What is the best advice you have gotten about watchdog and data journalism?

  • Hold the anecdotes and show me the data.
  • Use data to take a story to the next level. Many times, the stories are in the data.
  • Dig and dig some more. The best stories aren’t laid out nicely in a news release.

Is there anything else that would be important for journalists to know about you or how you tackle data journalism?

Every story that I work on, I’m always looking for a data element. It’s typically the first thing on my mind— finding a dataset that will take the story to the next level or creating my own. Incorporating data doesn’t have to be a big project, just something that provides comparisons or context helps.