‘Everything goes back to education’: 5 ways to transform coverage

Education reporters have documented the pandemic’s enormous effects on students, parents, teachers, administrators, and their communities. With policies changing quickly, how can an education reporter lift the voices of those most impacted? 

These speakers joined a National Press Club Journalism Institute program to offer strategies for shaping stories driven by the voices of those underrepresented in education coverage:

To find underrepresented voices, show up and ask

Vazquez Toness said that in the Boston area, the most underrepresented voices in education coverage include parents who don’t speak English as a first language, lower income families, people experiencing homelessness, and parents who work night shifts. 

When school is in person, she finds those sources by showing up, and by crowdsourcing. 

“I go, and I meet them outside schools, picking up their kids or dropping them off,” Vazquez Toness said. “I ask other parents I know and say: Who else do you know who might be concerned about this issue?”

Conlon said that the pandemic created challenges for access in Sioux Falls, S.D., as schools stopped allowing media on campuses.  

“That forced us to re-evaluate how we were reaching those underserved voices,” Conlon said. “That meant going to where they were outside of school. That meant going to programs or support systems within the community, or nonprofits that were helping.”

“In every community, you always have a group of moms who are the go-to people,” Ayala said. “The community organizers, they know who those moms are. So get the organizations to point you to those moms, because they’re the ones that are out there, and they can connect you to families.”

Take the time to educate sources on how journalists work

“Sometimes the people you’re talking to have never sat across from a journalist before, and they don’t understand the reporting process,” Conlon said. “Show them: Here’s how we get from point A to point B.”

Smith-Barrow recommends sharing previous coverage of a particular issue.

“It shows that we’ve done this before … you’ve shown interest in them before, and you’ve done it in a respectful way,” she said. “Often that will help ease any anxieties or nervousness because there’s something tangible that they can use as a reference and say, okay this person gets it.”

But what happens if there is no prior coverage or relationship to draw from? 

“You just have to be truly honest and say: I know nothing. Tell me everything,” she said. “People feel good about that — that they can guide you. They can lead you. They can be experts. So it’s a way of empowering them, and just being very frank with sources, like I really need your help because I don’t know this community.”

“If it is a community that maybe your publication has written about before, and it’s a group that is sort of wary because of the way they’ve been treated in the past, it’s also good to say look: What did we get wrong?” Vazquez Toness said. “Let them vent, and show some empathy for that.”   

Play the long game to build trust

“You can’t just show up and expect people to trust you with their story, particularly when it’s high stakes and very sensitive,” Ayala said.

“Knowing when to put the notebook away and just let the person across from you talk — that goes a really long way,” Conlon said. 

Conlon uses the phrase, “Help me understand. I understand this is important, but help me understand from your perspective, what this means to you,” to get sources to open up. 

“And even if they’re not talking to you on the record or only on background — keeping that line of communication open beyond just that initial story is essential,” she added.

“When I have an article published, I send a copy, a link, to everyone I sourced,” Arundel said. “It takes a little bit more time, but I think that helps build a connection as well.” 

Don’t write stories about students without talking to the students

“Every lede should almost always have that student voice, the impact on the student,” Ayala said. “If you don’t have that, if you can’t summarize that up top: Do you need more reporting? Do you need more voices? Do you need to dig in deeper?”

Reframe the education beat with equity

“You are writing for the kids, writing for the community you’re serving, not necessarily about them,” Conlon said.

“You have to realize who’s making the decisions and who’s getting left behind.” “It means approaching every story and asking who’s being left out?” Vazquez Toness said. “We should try to frame stories looking from the point of view of the students who have the most to lose.”

“At the heart of everything is equity; it is the heart of what’s happening in your city, in your community,” Ayala said. “Everything goes back to education. Everything goes back to who gets resources and who doesn’t. Look at every story through that lens is absolutely critical.”

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