Unless you’re working for one of the relatively few outlets that focus solely on the subject, you’re unlikely to be a beat reporter for education alone. However, if it’s your passion, you can make yourself the expert on the subject in your newsroom and become the go-to reporter for all things schools.
The education beat is a complex one, covering vast ranges —pre-K to college; investigative to financial; and even political and crime reporting. It can mean presenting a human interest story that emerges in the classroom, breaking news like one of the all-too-common school shootings, or a billion-dollar budget battle in the statehouse. The subject of education intersects with a myriad of events in the country — and the world.
Education reporter Bracey Harris references one example from her home state of Mississippi. The governor ordered hundreds of bridges closed because they were structurally unsound, prompting hundreds of schools to redirect bus routes and, in some cases, require children who had been bused to find their own way to school if they lived within a mile of it.
“That was just a perfect example,” Harris says, “On its surface, all of these bridges being closed looks like an infrastructure issue, but it’s an education issue too. And the same goes for healthcare, the economy, so I think you have to have a very healthy sense of looking at what’s going on outside of the schoolhouse in order to cover it really well.”
Again, looking for the education angle hidden within other stories will allow you to own the subject, but covering it well requires research, data analysis, and sources in your community.
How to start
All good reporting requires context and an understanding of the community you serve. Start by doing searches for local media coverage of education, so you have the background you need to recognize hot-button issues or recurring themes. Then start building your network.
Rarely will you cover a school board or PTA meeting as a news story — but going to them will allow you to find and nurture sources and uncover story ideas.
Harris says that’s definitely been her experience. “I’m a firm believer in the thought process that you don’t want to have to find a source when you need one. That’s the worst time to have to make a source,” Harris says. “If you can get that freedom from your editors and have that communication, going to a school board meeting is important for sourcing, important for if I have to call up this employee and say I want background on this controversial story that’s about to break in the district — that they’re not like, who are you? And why am I trusting you when I could be endangering my livelihood?”
To Harris’ point, one of the toughest challenges many education reporters face is a lack of access to schools and students; superintendents often cite privacy concerns to keep reporters out. It’s difficult to put a human face on education stories if you can’t shoot pictures in classrooms or talk to students and teachers on school grounds. Reporters who invest time in developing relationships with individual students, parents, teachers and administrators can eventually earn their trust and gain the access they need to tell compelling stories on the education beat.
Many education stories can be generated just from data acquired through public information requests and simple analysis using an Excel spreadsheet. Looking for trends, comparing year-over-year and county-by-county test scores, teacher recertification and retention — and how that relates to those test scores — bullying complaints and school violence all starts with data and then requires those trusted sources to put it all into context.
Where to find ideas
There are numerous resources for story ideas beyond school board and PTA meetings. Among the websites that can help you get started:
- The Hechinger Report is an independent non-profit newsroom based at Teacher’s College, Columbia University focused entirely on education reporting.
- “Education Week” and the “Chronicle of Higher Education” are also major education news sites that can spark an idea that you can then investigate to see if your districts are grappling with specific issues that piqued your interest.
Harris, who works for The Hechinger Report, has been an education reporter for most of her career and says the Education Writers Association was her go-to resource when she was starting out. It offers a variety of resources to support journalists focused on education reporting, including training like webinars, offering content for reporters to use in their research of education issues and expert sources for almost any topic.
“They have guides for everything from ‘How to use Excel with education reporting’ to ‘Here’s how you talk to children for stories’ — and what are the ethics of that and the conditions you want,” Harris explains.
A simple online search of social media can also be a great way to uncover issues within your community. High school students or parents of school-age students often post online about their concerns or complaints, even tweeting at their principal or superintendent. Searching through your schools’ or districts’ social media accounts may prove very informative and point you in the right direction for important topics in your area.
Harris had one such experience: “I was curious about one school about how their maintenance ability was during the winter. I searched this district on social media and put in ‘no heat’ and I was able to see tracing back over a couple of months. Kids actually were tweeting, ‘our high school is cold again today; You should let us go home,’ and actually tweeting that at the superintendent.”
The possibilities in education reporting are endless. You may discover a talent for spreadsheet and data analysis that can prove invaluable to your community, or you may be tenacious in tracking school funding and spending, or you may be particularly gifted at sharing stories of the struggles facing students and teachers.
Kristen Taketa is a K-12 education and investigative reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune and has become an advocate for disadvantaged students. “If we’re not giving kids today the best chance they have at a better future, then that’s a real problem,” Taketa said in a profile. “Education is really considered to be one of the biggest factors that can affect social mobility or improve people’s lives.
Harris had one final piece of advice for rookie education reporters, “I think always at the forefront it’s ‘Do no harm.’
“I’m a go-with-my-gut sort of person. I like being able to sleep at night. If I’m talking to someone, it doesn’t matter how compelling what they’re sharing is, if there is an element of it where they’re hesitant to go public and they’re just sort of wavering back and forth, I’m always upfront and I let people know you have to be comfortable. You have to go home and you have to think about if there are any particular repercussions you could face — or think about do I share my child’s story in this moment when they’re not sharing it themselves? I think it’s always better to have those conversations on the front end,” Harris said.
Building trust is crucial to having the access you need to be an effective education reporter. A vast array of resources are available online. You just need to bring the passion and dedication required to hone your skills.
This story includes some content from a previous version reported by NewsLab founder Deborah Potter.