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Pulitzer Winner: How reporters can trace tough social problems back to officials’ concrete choices

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

Pulitzer Winner: How reporters can trace tough social problems back to officials’ concrete choices

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U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called out the Pinellas School Board for “education malpractice” after the Tampa Bay Times published its series. (Photo courtesy Tampa Bay Times/Dirk Shadd)

Editor's Note: On Tuesday, April 18, National Fellow Michael LaForgia and his Tampa Bay Times team received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. In the essay below, he reflects on some of the key lessons from his experience of reporting the 2015 National Fellowship project.

It’s easy for reporters covering issues like poverty and racial inequality to become convinced that the problems are intractable and ever-present — that the government is doing everything it can in the face of forces outside its control.

That’s almost never true.

Reporters should do their best to take apart complicated social problems and look at what local officials have done about them over time.

That's one of the biggest lessons we took away from reporting and writing “Failure Factories,” an 18-month investigation into one Florida school district's neglect of some of its most vulnerable students.

The series, which ran in the Tampa Bay Times from Aug. 12 to Dec. 27, 2015, told the story of how the Pinellas County School Board transformed five once-decent elementary schools in the county's black neighborhoods into five of the 15 worst schools in Florida.

The stories showed that the School Board created the problem in less than a decade by re-segregating schools in the county’s black neighborhoods and then breaking promises to support those schools with added money and resources.

Then district leaders fumbled programs meant to make schools safer while violent incidents in the schools spiraled out of control, putting children at risk and guaranteeing most of them would not learn.

The problems didn’t end with the five schools. Black children across the county were disproportionately punished in ways that set them further behind black kids in every other part of the state, thanks to backward discipline policies that every other large Florida school district had abandoned.

The stories also showed that the district’s most exclusive and prestigious magnet schools were largely inaccessible to black children in high-poverty areas.

At the heart of the Times series was an effort to trace the specific policies and practices that created the situation today. Just as important was an accounting of what district leaders were not doing to combat the rampant problems they had created in these schools — something our executive editor dubbed the “timeline of inaction.”

To repeat an important point, it's possible for reporters to measure how well a local government is doing its job by comparing it to other local governments, to nationwide best-practices and to emerging research about smarter and better ways of doing things.

We did it by systematically surveying the policies of other Florida school districts; immersing ourselves in white papers and esoteric education studies; interviewing scores of experts on closing the achievement gap, school security, teacher quality and student discipline; and spending hours poring over meeting minutes and agenda packets to trace the evolution of school district policies covering everything from student attendance boundaries to magnet school admission preferences.

Tracing policy failures by comparing a local government to other, more successful operations isn’t glamorous, but it can yield stories that make a huge difference in your community.

Even before our first story published, the district drew up plans to convert three of the five schools into magnets, hoping the new programs will attract diversity and better teachers.

After the stories ran, district leaders pledged more help for principals at the schools during hiring season and created a program to stabilize and support the schools’ teacher ranks. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan traveled to Pinellas to visit one of the schools profiled in the stories, blasting the Pinellas School Board for “education malpractice” and pledging to remain involved with the schools going forward. The Florida Department of Education opened a still-ongoing investigation into the district’s use of federal Title I dollars, seeking to ensure the money was spent properly. And the school district hired a special administrator solely to oversee the turnaround of the five elementary schools.

Once reporters go through the steps of comparing their local government to others, and are able to come away with examples of flawed policies and procedures, it's not enough to stop there and do stories on those policies.

To really drive the point home, you have to focus on the decision-makers and their decisions — to emphasize as strongly as possible that the policies were the result of deliberate choices by people in power, not unavoidable outcomes. That requires taking time to learn the history of those policies, getting vote records, requesting transcripts or recordings of bygone meetings, and, in the end, not shying away from naming names.

For us, the entire process entailed a tremendous amount of work: It was the most demanding series I had ever worked on. But it was also the most rewarding.

[Photo courtesy Tampa Bay Times/Dirk Shadd]


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