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Utilizing Journalism Students in a Reporting Project

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Craft: Lessons From The Field

Utilizing Journalism Students in a Reporting Project

Advantages Far Outweigh Problems

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In 2011, the state Legislature passed a law requiring 30 minutes of exercise a day in public elementary schools. The story detailed how the law was watered down by lobbying from the education establishment to allow them to substitute lunch breaks and field trips for physical activity requirements. It also allowed the districts to not meet the 30-minute requirement if students were off for holidays or teacher service days during any month.

The end result was that none of the major school districts had added any recess or exercise time or physical activity to school schedules. The story also pointed out that the inaction came during a time when student demographics were showing big increases in poor and Latino students. Both groups had higher obesity rates than the state averages.

Project approach

We wanted the story to be based on data and public record research. As a result, we did the data analysis first to document the extent of the child obesity problem in Colorado. At the same time, we conducted public record research into the legislative hearings and votes and lobbying activity by school districts and their trade organizations to get the bill watered down. We collected every version of the bill as language was changed to show that enforcement of the exercise requirement was eliminated as well as any reporting requirements to the state.

Lessons

Our biggest challenge and lesson was attempting to use both high school and college students to get a more realistic look at how school districts were getting around exercise requirements. We initially were going to pair 15 journalism masters students from the University of Colorado each with a high school student from one of the 15 largest school districts in the state.

The master’s students were assigned to do a demographic profile of the school districts, a review of school district policies on exercise and a look at class schedules for elementary schools within each district. The high school students would act as the eyes and ears for the college students and hone in on one elementary school to look at how much exercise students were actually getting each week. The result was going to be a district-by-district look at exercise policies and demographics.

The plan broke down quickly. We had no problem getting the 15 University of Colorado students to each analyze a district. We had no success getting high school students to pair with them.

We contacted the state high school journalism organization whose director sent out emails three times to journalism advisors throughout the state. We only got six students from that endeavor. We tried direct contacts with high schools we had worked with in the past and only got a couple more students. Of the 8 students, four were from one district.

However, almost all of the students never followed through with their research. The bottom line: we were only able to pair one high school student with a college student.

In hindsight, we needed a better outreach effort to the high schools. We should have made individual presentations to schools in key districts instead of trying to use email. We also should have made the overtures sooner in the story process.

Another journalism professor suggested having the high school advisors make the research part of their work for the student newspaper. They could do their own stories on what they found to compliment our story.

We have not abandoned the idea of using high school journalism students in future projects.

Other Lessons

The other problem we faced was making sure we got accurate information from the college students. It was not a serious problem, but we found some instances where students took information directly from blogs or web pages that were not reliable. We also had to proof some of the demographic information for math errors.

The quality of the work varied by student. In some cases, the student research stood on its own, while in other cases we needed to do more research to fill in holes on district policies on exercise and class schedules.

Overall, I think using student reporters can be effective, but this approach needs good, solid planning early on in the story process. It also is important to make sure the students understand clearly their roles and what information they need to gather.

The advantages of using students

The advantages of using the college students far outweighed the problems. The research was structured so that each week, the students did a separate part of the profile of the districts and class schedules. One week was devoted to gathering census information on who lived within the school district, another to looking at changing enrollment in the elementary schools, and another to submitting five standard questions to each of the 15 districts on the extent of physical activities for elementary school students.

The result was we got a good, solid profile of the extent of obesity problems, class schedules and the socio economic situation in the districts’ neighborhoods.

Other Insights

We used a multi-media approach to the story and it was effective in attracting media attention to the project. Besides the written story for newspapers and web pages, we developed a short video, shot photos and put together interactive graphics on the demographics of the school districts. We recommend using the Free Dive interactive application developed at Berkeley. It is free, simple to use and easy to embed in web pages.

In addition, we provided access to the entire package to newspapers, radio stations, television stations and media web sites a week ahead of the release date under an embargo. That allowed the various outlets to do their own reporting to supplement the package and design print and web page presentations ahead of time.

Colorado’s largest newspaper, the Denver Post, ran the package on a Sunday and the state’s largest television station, 9News, did a three-minute broadcast on the project. It also appeared on PBS, public radio and in several regional newspapers.

Another strategy we have pursued is posting child obesity news updates on the Rocky Mountain PBS website and then linking the updates to the original story package. This is attracting new viewers and readers to the project.

Here are two stories produced through the project:

School Exercise: Watered-down 2011 law lacks impact

Demographics Help Tell The Story

PHOTO CREDIT: Joe Mahoney/The I-News Network at Rocky Mountain PBS

Announcements

The deadline is Friday, December 14, to apply for the 2019 California Fellowship, which provides $1,000 reporting grants and six months of expert mentoring to 20 journalists, plus community engagement grants of up to $2,000, plus specialized mentoring, to five.  

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