Long-Form Journalism Still Important for Telling Education Stories

By Mark Walsh — May 22, 2014 2 min read
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Nashville, Tenn.

In two earlier posts from the Education Writers Association meeting here, I wrote about news outlets’ efforts to use social media to improve their education reporting and engage with their audiences about it.

In a very short form, the 140-word tweet, reporters are using Twitter to report some education stories virtually in real time, I noted.

At the other end of the time spectrum, it was evident at the meeting here at Vanderbilt University that long-form journalism and a deep investment of time are still good tactics for telling the complex story of education.

One sign of that was that the public radio show “This American Life”'s report on “Harper High School” in Chicago, which had already won first prize in the investigative reporting-broadcast category of EWA’s national contest, was announced here as the winner of the Fred M. Hechinger grand prize from among all the category winners.

Reporter Linda Lutton and a team from “This American Life” spent five months at Harper High School, a Chicago school beset by violence. The result was a searing, two-part audio report. (Part one here, part two here.)

In accepting the Hechinger Prize at an awards banquet on May 18, Lutton said she had been “blown over by the response to the shows.”

A former newspaper reporter who now covers education for public radio station WBEZ in Chicago, Lutton said she was struck by how much goes on behind the scenes to make an effective radio report. And she lauded the dedication of her fellow education reporters, regardless of their medium.

“When we report on an issue as important as education, that is at the core of what our society is about,” she said.

Meanwhile, an even longer form of education journalism also received attention here. The documentary film “American Promise” follows two African-American boys as they navigate the education system from kindergarten through high school graduation.

I reviewed the 2 hour, 20 minute theatrical version of the film last October here in the blog. (A trimmed version appeared on public television’s “P.O.V.” series in January.) The film is about two boys from Brooklyn families that start out at the Dalton School in Manhattan.

One of the boys in the film is the son of the husband-wife filmmaking team. Michèle Stephenson, the mother of Idris Brewster, appeared at the EWA meeting to show an extended clip from the film and to discuss it.

“We were very interested in the longitudinal approach to filmmaking,” Stephenson said of herself and her husband, George Brewster.

She noted that the project had started with five boys as subjects, not two. But three of the boys dropped out for various reasons. “We made the decision to keep going, to keep the camera on,” she said. Such a long form was important to telling the story of black middle class families and the education of their children, Stephenson said.

“We don’t get to see enough of it” in the media, she said. “Statistics are not enough. The story is what allows change to happen.”

The film incorporates major stories on race that were going on during the period the filmmakers were focusing on two New York City black boys—the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the election of Barack Obama as the country’s first African-American president.

“There were so many things going on in society around” the boys during the filming, Stephenson said. “That’s the beauty of doing an longitudinal piece.”

A DVD of the film will be out in the fall.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.