USA Today Teacher Story Illustrates Possibilities & Perils Of “Digital Storytelling”

Sometimes stories are just so big and broad in scope that , while they seem super important, they can look pretty daunting to read. This often happens with investigative pieces or any other attempt to get comprehensive on a tough, complicated topic — which is unfortunate given how much reporting and production time goes into them and how critical the topic usually is.

According to USA Today (Broken discipline tracking systems let teachers flee troubled pasts), school officials have failed to report the names of at least 9,000 disciplined teachers over a period of time. Of those, 1,400 had their teaching licenses revoked and roughly 200 faced sexual or physical abuse allegations.

For days, I tweeted out images and links (see above) about this and kept the story open in a browser tab, but still hadn’t read the whole thing. And yet it turns out that the USA Today team did many of the things that are these days considered to be best practices in digital storytelling, and over the past week or so a bunch of other outlets have been picking up the story, boiling it down, and localizing it — just like USA Today hoped.

Folks from USA Today didn’t get back to me to talk about their story, but thanks to interviews with a couple of digital storytelling practitioners and experts, I can tell you what worked in the USA Today package and what might have been done better, along with my own impressions.

These stories are still primarily text-based, rather than primarily audio or video, but they include different elements and are explicitly designed to work online and especially on mobile (which is why they sometimes look strange on a desktop monitor). Some are narratives, focused on a deep dive into one illustrative story. Others are primarily investigative, describing a much broader situation with many parts and characters.

Some other recent examples from the education beat include the Tampa Bay Times’ Failure Factories series about Pinellas County, the Miami Herald’s Higher-Ed Hustle. I’m sure there are others.

According to the Miami Herald’s Michael Vasquez, who helped put together that paper’s big series on for-profit colleges (Higher-Ed Hustle), the USA Today package is pretty strong. 

While I was overwhelmed with the rows of mug shots on the front page, Vasquez liked it, pointing out that it suggested a key theme of the piece which is criminality. There’s no single best way to open a big piece, he says. “You can start it small [with a single narrative] or you can start big picture.”  The Herald also used head shots — of lawmakers who’d been lobbied by the for-profit higher education companies and sponsored laws giving them access to students and funding. “There’s a power in putting a politician’s face out there.”

At the Herald, the goal was to make these stories immersive experiences for readers, but also to create breaks where readers can stop or sit back (rather than reading more text) — especially since they may well be reading the story on their phones while waiting for the next bus. So it’s a good thing that the USA Today piece has three main chapters, clearly marked, to help readers get through the thicket.

There’s also a very helpful embeddable (shareable) two-minute animated video explainer, titled “Dis-honor roll,” which comes at the end of the first big section. “The reader needs to take a breath,” says Vasquez.

But the reader also needs a good reason to go back and keep reading the next section. “We paid special attention to finishing every story strong.”

The second section also ends with a visual element. Perhaps my favorite, it’s a 12-slide “story map” showing how one teacher moved from state to state, getting jobs despite problems all along the way — illustrating the theme of the piece with a single narrative:

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Vasquez also liked the slide show showing one teacher’s journey from state to state.  “It’s sort of simple, a timeline, but it’s one of those things that it just works. As a reader you kind of feel like you’re traveling with the teacher.”  

If only it was a time-lapse GIF, too! 

That’s not all. There’s also a link showing how to look up the background of teaches in every state.

There’s a four-minute in-house audio segment in which the main reporter, Steve Reilly, explains the story to a colleague.

This approach is something the Miami Herald team used even more, offering readers both in-house videos and also downloaded clips of videos found elsewhere that illustrated the story they were trying to tell. They also assembled a nine-minute overview video which is still getting views and comments several months later, according to Vazquez. 

Along with a now-standard interactive (clickable) map grading states on their reporting practices (red is bad), there’s a gizmo that asks if you want to Tweet at the governor of a state (pretty cool if you’re trying to make things easy and direct and have your journalism make a difference).

[In terms of real-world impact, the story also seems to have had one. USA Today has done a couple of followups about how states and the national nonprofit in charge of tracking this data have responded. Read the complete USA Today investigation.]

In terms of being picked up by other media outlets, the USA Today story has done really well. Over the past few days, NPR, CBS This Morning, the LA Times, The Seventy Four have all picked up parts of the story and helped move it along

Click the above NPR segment to get a quick overview of the big USA Today story about how districts and states let rogue teachers relocate and teach again (How Teachers Accused of Misconduct Can Stay in Classrooms). Read this LA Times writeup of the investigation (Some teachers are getting fired in one state but hired in another), which provides additional information about. Or, read 3 Things Every Parent Must Know About USA Today’s Jaw-Dropping Teacher Discipline Investigation from The Seventy Four, which boils it all down. CBS This Morning also picked up the story:  Click here.

For all its strengths and successes, folks behind this USA Today story might have done some things to make it even better.

Paul Cheung, who directs AP’s digital news operation, noted the mug shots created some confusion in the reader’s mind — and weren’t clearly linked to other parts of the story. Making the mugshots clickable would be one way to connect the images to the stories, according to Cheung, but so would naming them or connecting them in other ways. “It felt like I don’t know who these people are until much later,” he said. “Who are they and am I going to be learning about them later?”

Then, after the mug shots, USA Today jumps into the story and gives the background to the series instead of telling the story of one of the teachers who’s image has been shown, or something more illustrative or conceptual rather than text.

One other way to go would have been to have begun with the story of Alexander Stormer, which is told later on through a series of maps and captions. Even better, according to Cheung, would have been to have used the animated video that USA Today built to illustrate the broken system. “Frankly, I might watch that and nothing else,” he said.

Cheung notes that USA Today has been doing digital storytelling for a while now, and that this effort is a solid if not amazing example. “I like the individual elements. The video explainer was really good. The journey of one teacher is good. It made me think ‘What is the journey like for the other teachers?'”

While these kinds of stories are still somewhat new in education journalism, they’re increasingly common in big newsrooms and, according to Cheung we’re going to see more and more newsrooms doing these kinds of presentations. “Some are better than others. This one has many of the right elements, but could use a little more work.”

One last thought — from me rather than Cheung or Vazquez. In an age of video snippets, USA Today could have highlighted the fact that one of the teachers whose records they dug up was on NBC’s nationally aired TV program To Catch a Predator. There’s no video from that segment, not even a link, and the teacher’s name isn’t given prominently until pretty far down into the piece.

He’s Stanley Kendall, the guy with the glasses in the top left. Here’s a link to the the Dateline segment from YouTube. It’s pretty visceral stuff, and I have some issues with the media shaming teachers, but with that little bit of video footage already publicly available, all of a sudden the story is an extremely emotional one. 

Related posts: Steal This School Segregation Story Visualization! (Pinellas County)

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.