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Aug. 5, 2014, 11:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How ProPublica uses a “reporting recipe” to cook up collaboration

The nonprofit investigative outlet is working to connect sources with journalists from other news organizations to further its reporting on how schools physically restrain students.

Roger McKinney first heard the story on NPR. Students in public schools, many with physical or mental disabilities, were physically restrained or isolated more than 267,000 times across the country during the 2011-12 academic year, according to federal data.

“More than half the time, that meant adults held or pinned the child, and in 7,600 cases, a device was used, like a belt or handcuffs,” NPR reporter Joseph Shapiro said on air. “And the numbers are almost certainly higher. Many of the nation’s largest school districts reported no use of seclusion or restraint.”

That report, published by NPR in conjunction with ProPublica struck a chord with McKinney, the K-12 education reporter at the Columbia Tribune in Columbia, Missouri.

Using ProPublica’s data, which it published for free on its website, McKinney localized the story by focusing on the local school districts in and around Columbia.

“From time to time, ProPublica does stories that would apply to local stories,” McKinney said. “And if [they] have already done the legwork, that makes it easier for us, because we don’t often have time to do investigative stories like that.”

In conjunction with its original story and the data, ProPublica published a “reporting recipe,” a step-by-step guide for other reporters to use the data and write their own stories on restraints in schools. As part of the reporting recipe, ProPublica is connecting interested journalists with potential sources who could provide anecdotes of schools restraining students.

Though he sought help from ProPublica via email and Twitter to decipher the data, McKinney didn’t use a ProPublica-generated anecdote. Still, more than 60 people willing to share stories of school restraints have come forward to ProPublica, and they are working to connect those individuals with 31 reporters who have shown interest in the project.

“Our goal is not to generate as many pageviews as possible for our story — our goal is to get this issue out there and ultimately to try and have some impact, to try and influence a debate around this,” said Eric Umansky, ProPublica’s assistant managing editor. “The best way to do that is not to do one story on your own — kind of like one and done…it’s to provide other news organizations the tools so that they can write their own stories.”

ProPublica has long been committed to making the data it uses public, and in February it launched a data store to try and monetize some of the data sets it obtains. But this isn’t the first time ProPublica has created a reporting recipe or tried to connect other journalists with sources.

Back in 2010, ProPublica created a reporting recipe for a story on how states take disciplinary action against nurses. It also in 2010 worked to connect reporters with sources for stories on the federal mortgage modification program. In each case, there’s an implicit deal: ProPublica has the resources, skill, and time to assemble data on a national scale. Local journalists have the audience that could benefit from what that data says. Together, they can have a bigger impact — something key to ProPublica, whose mission drives it to “spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”

With distinct local anecdotes, those stories worked well for this collaborative approach to reporting. Local reporters like McKinney can tailor the data sets and stories to their own audiences. Heather Vogell, the reporter covering the restraint issue for ProPublica, said there were a few followup stories she wanted to write after her initial piece was published in June, but she realized that other local reporters might be able to better tell those stories.

Though ProPublica is still keeping some information for itself to write additional stories, their approach to reporting collaboratively with other outlets was a change for Vogell, who was hired by ProPublica in February after spending nine years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“It was a mental shift from when you’re in a competitive environment, and you’re hiding away your bits and pieces of knowledge like a squirrel burying it, and hoping that nobody else finds it before you finish the reporting — to kind of wanting to pass the acorns out to as many people as you can, to try and get some momentum for the story, and sort of watching everything organically develop beyond that,” she said.

In the past, ProPublica had assembled these reporting aids in bits and pieces, but as Vogell began reporting the story on reporting restraints, Umansky thought this story would fit well with ProPublica’s localizing approach. To that end, ProPublica decided to publish the reporting recipe in conjunction with the solicitations for sources and additional reporters.

“It just occurred to me that this is another opportunity where we could do something like this. And rather than be ad hoc about it, I thought we could bake it into the process from the get go,” Umansky said. “And so the way we thought about it was that we want to encourage other people to report on it, so how can we make it as easy as possible for them to do that, and what are all the varying things that could be useful for them to do that?”

Because ProPublica co-published the first story with NPR, it allowed NPR member stations access to the data and drafts of the story before it was published. Some NBC-owned local stations also got an advanced look, Umansky said.

Though some journalists (like McKinney) found the restraint story on their own, ProPublica wanted to ensure that potential sources and other journalists knew about its reporting in order to solicit contributions. ProPublica’s engagement editor, Amanda Zamora, undertook an aggressive plan to find sources through various social channels. ProPublica published a form on its website for submissions, but Zamora focused on who was sharing Vogell’s initial story on Facebook and reached out to different groups there to try and solicit additional submissions.

“It’s getting easier to find communities around issues on Facebook, but it can still be difficult to gain access to groups and pages where you aren’t already active,” Zamora told me in an email. “So I used SproutSocial to track pages sharing links to Heather’s story, and used those posts as jumping off points to invite readers to share tips. In one case, an advocate saw my reply and offered to post it more prominently to his page which is geared for people who care about special needs children.”

Zamora also had some success approaching moderators of appropriate subreddits — but much of the outreach work was done over email.

“A lot of the networking that we do is by email — literally matching reporters with tips and documents, following up with them as they have questions, and hoping that the stories work out,” Zamora wrote. “We have at least two that I know are actively being reported out now.”

Photo of a cookbook by John used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 5, 2014, 11:30 a.m.
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