‘You Can’t Change Anything If You Don’t Talk About It’

Chastity Pratt sets the agenda as the Wall Street Journal’s first education bureau chief.

As the new education bureau chief at the Wall Street Journal, Chastity Pratt says her personal experiences as a student in, and then a longtime reporter at, Detroit’s under-resourced public schools are helping her shape coverage that guides the finance-oriented readership into appreciating the profound societal and economic impacts of educational inequities.

Pratt spent 12 years at the Detroit Free Press, then collaborated with journalists from local minority journalism outlets to create what would ultimately become Bridge magazine’s new Detroit bureau. (Bridge magazine has won several EWA awards for its education coverage.)

Last year, she won a prestigious Nieman fellowship, aiming to study how America’s patchwork educational funding system reinforces inequities.

Questions about her research from international Nieman fellows opened her eyes to how “uniquely American” our education funding system is.

“Fellows from all over the world were like, wait a minute, wait a minute, what’s a charter school? Why is that OK? And then others would say, wait a minute, wait a minute, why does this school get more money than the one across the street? I mean, they were just flabbergasted — and even more so when they had to enroll their own kids,” Pratt said.

So when a recruiter for the Wall Street Journal reached out to her this summer, Pratt saw an opportunity to get American journalists to cover the topic with fresh eyes. The way the pandemic further worsened educational inequities stiffened her determination to find new angles and realize that “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

In this member spotlight, Pratt talked to the Education Writers Association’s Allison Kowalski about building up the Journal’s education team in the midst of a pandemic, and how she’s pushing the Journal to confront and humanize tough racial topics in education.

(Courtesy of Chastity Pratt)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has it been trying to transition into this role during a virtual world? I’m sure it is kind of a weird dynamic to be like, OK, new life, new role, new leader.

On the one hand, it’s exhilarating because I started in June, right in the thick of it. And everything is new for this job. Not education; I’ve been covering education for about 20 years. But I’ve never been an editor. I’ve never worked at The Wall Street Journal, and we’re in the middle of one of the toughest news cycles of our generation. So the volume of news is head-spinning.

The other thing is, the Journal has never had an education bureau chief before. All of the education reporters were assigned to different bureaus around the country, and they were sort of in their own silos. But now we’re very much operating like a team, which works for me. I’m the oldest of eight kids. I’m used to running a big team. So I very much came in with the mindset of, we are going to do this as a team, we’re going to work together. We’re going to have weekly meetings where we brainstorm together. We’re going to have a vision for this team so that a year from now, we can make certain progress with the way the Journal covers education. So far, we’ve been able to do a lot of new and different things that they might not have done if not for the fact that they pulled this team together.

Knowing that we are in this unprecedented time where there’s a lot of anxiety about the future, do you feel there’s any obligation in the newsroom to balance the doom and gloom coverage with more positive perspectives?

We have to tell the whole story, which includes those bright spots, those moments and places where we see accomplishment and noteworthy happy stories happening. Know that’s part of the whole story. It’s not every day, all day doom and gloom. Right now it’s different and it’s painful. But woven into all that when you’re writing about education, especially because we write about children, is that children don’t see the world like we see it. When you’re writing about children, you can’t leave out the happiness that it is to be a kid and go to school and all those moments along the way.

I was talking to another EWA member about this, and they referenced how often education reporters write to the audience of adults. The reality is, obviously, third graders are not going to be reading The Wall Street Journal, but there are going to be younger people who are looking to see themselves reflected in coverage or as a historical record, and it’s important for reporters to understand that context of: Not all young people are going to see themselves as having these awful, fated futures because of this.

Sort of to that point, but sort of tangential, it helps that I am not a Wall Street Journal lifer. I’m bringing new eyes, new perspectives to the newsroom. All newsrooms have a culture and way of doing things. And when I come into that newsroom, I’ve not been steeped in that culture. I say, hey, how about this? Have you ever thought about that? Do this story differently. To give you an example, I’m probably one of the only African American managers on my desk. I don’t know everybody, but I think there might be three of us out of, like, a billion. But, you know, I bring those perspectives from poverty in Detroit. And that means that our coverage reflects that.

Last week, we did an audio story where we had high school kids in New York City talking about what it’s like inside the schools now that schools just reopened. We heard their actual voices, and the emotion is different from a regular print story. And I thought that it was important for people to hear from the kids, not just see the pictures or read, but to actually hear in their voice what they’re going through.

And these were Black kids, brown kids, white kids, all the spectrum of children, young adults, actually, in New York talking about school. I’m not sure that story would have been done that way if I weren’t there to say, look, let’s do it this way, right? One of the most-read news stories of the week was about anti-racism. The gist of it was the racial reckoning has come to school. Would that story have happened if I hadn’t worked there? Maybe, but I really, really pushed hard for it. We’re doing a lot of different topics. The Journal has not always been a place that would take on these tough racial topics. It’s a business paper. People don’t look at the Journal as a place for social discourse. But now that these issues are at the forefront, the Journal recognizes that we have to cover them — cover them in a Wall Street Journal quality, data-driven [way]. So we’re starting to do that. And I’m pushing as much as I can for that.

One issue many EWA members are working hard to change is the cliched coverage about negative outcomes among Black and Latino communities. I’m curious what your take on that trope is.

I’ve always been the type of reporter who would say, look, we’ve got to cover the news; sometimes the news isn’t happy. You know, if we try to be positive on stories around Black and brown kids, then we are not really reflecting the whole picture.

Stories around test scores, stories around achievement — they’re tough subjects. They’re not good. They’re definitely not good for the Black and brown kids. And I know — as a kid who went to some of the worst public schools in America, in Detroit — that has an impact on the kids, as if there’s something wrong with your schools. The way I approach it, and I have always approached it as a journalist is, you know, what’s the impact of our policies, of the way we school children?

You can’t change anything if you don’t talk about it.

You have to bring in the stories of resilience and happiness that happens. The happy stories will continue to be overshadowed by the tough stories because all of the problems that Black and brown kids have in schools are getting worse. We don’t hear anything from our sources that tells us that it’s about to get better.

[So] you do the story and you do it as an accurate reflection of the whole story. And we’re not doing anybody any service by amplifying the happy stories when the school is on fire.