Reporting from the Ground Up

A few months ago, we wrote about Kelli Cole, a journalism student at Youngstown State University, whose senior project is an investigation of why there is such performance disparity between two public high schools in our area.

East High School’s students are mostly African-Americans from poor families, while Boardman has mostly white students from middle- or upper middle-class families. A few Working-Class Perspectives readers expressed interest in what she found.
Kelli learned that it’s not about the money spent to educate students. Both school districts spend nearly the same. It’s not about the quality of the teachers, either.  It’s about the armed guards who greet students in the hallways at the predominantly African-American school, and it’s about the police cars who routinely circle the parking lots. And at the white school, it’s about the pep assemblies, and the science club, and the band’s reputation as one of the best in the state.

Simply put, what Cole found is that it’s about expectations and perceptions. One student at the African-American school told Cole that officials expect students to perform poorly and so they do.

She wrote:

The students point out that there are other factors that play a part in the school’s lack of success on the annual report card.

Sitting in a corner of the cafeteria after lunch, three East students discussed why their urban school does not do as well as their suburban counterparts.   Curtis Woods, a senior in advanced placement classes, says, “As kids in a Youngstown City school, we get looked at as being unruly.  [Teachers] treat us like we all have parole officers.”

Just as Woods finished speaking, a teacher began yelling.  The faculty member shouted to Woods and two other students who were still sitting in the cafeteria, “Get to class, now!”

Woods and the other two who were talking to a student reporter told the teacher
that the principal had given them permission to stay in the cafeteria for the
interview.  The teacher wasn’t interested in their explanations and continued to yell until the students agreed to leave.

Later, the teacher apologized to the student journalist, saying if she had known who she was, she would not have acted in that manner.

Minutes later, a student was walked to the principal’s office inhandcuffs.  That student was just one of three disciplined between lunch and the end of the school day.

One police officer was heard yelling as a student walked out of the main office. “No, no, no! Right here!” shouted the officer. The next instructions from the police officer were for the student to ‘shut up.’

East High Guidance Counselor M.J. Brown said that approach is often necessary in order to maintain a safe and educational environment.

Cole would have never heard any of this had she just picked up the phone and interviewed the officials.  Instead, she spent numerous hours actually talking to the students and observing what she saw in the hallways.

That type of reporting differs from the standard stories that are often written about school districts and test results. She actually talked to students instead of merely relying on statistics, school administrators, and politicians.  Kelli’s on-the-ground work allowed readers a unique perspective on two different school systems and gave them a way to draw more complete conclusions.

This kind of reporting -referred to with the cliché “shoe-leather” reporting  — is, we believe, the only really effective way of covering those  who are disenfranchised.

Brent Cunningham, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, has been working with us to develop a reporting workshop for students focused on covering working-class people and economically struggling communities.

In explaining his support for this workshop, Cunningham wrote:  “The press has a duty to try (even though it will always fall short of the goal) to represent all the people of this country in all their complexity, not just those with whom journalists share economic and cultural touchstones. In fact, it is even more crucial that the press help the country understand-in a deep and  nuanced way-those segments of the population that lack the ability to consistently  represent themselves in the public sphere.”

We believe Cole’s reporting, based on standing in school hallways, interviewing dozens of students, and listening and observing, demonstrates the effectiveness of this type of a direct approach to journalism.

This approach is crucial for effectively covering working-class people and issues, who are often labeled with stereotypes. Cunningham says that the working class has been “shoehorned by well-meaning reporters and editors into a stereotype-think Archie Bunker-that hasn’t been true in any broad sense for decades.”  These stereotypes stand in the way of developing full stories and, in fact, often allow for inaccurate stories to be produced.

Like Kelli Cole, reporters need to walk the hallways, hear the students, experience the pep rally, and see the guards.  It’s our job as journalism educators to teach the next generation how.

Journalism educators need to do what we used to do: stress the basics. Teach students to leave their desks and their computers. Remind them about the value of face-to-face interviews. Explain how Internet reporting, while helpful, is no substitute for seeing and experiencing.  Stress the importance and value of everyone’s story.

Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff

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One Response to Reporting from the Ground Up

  1. Pingback: Youngstown Renaissance » Blog Archive » Expectations in our city schools

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