“As often happens when you’re a reporter, one story leads to another,” said Emily Hanford of American RadioWorks. And when your beat is higher education, the stories lead into one another almost seamlessly.
“Grit, Luck and Money" answers questions inspired by Hanford’s fall 2011 documentary “Some College, No Degree.” While reporting “Some College,” Hanford started to question “why don’t people finish college?” and “who is it hard for?”
“Grit” attempts to answer those questions by following the struggle of a group of low-income students who are on track to graduate high school and go to college. But even though their test scores may be excellent, that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll make it. Hanford explores the other factors, like grit, luck, and money, that cause only 9 percent of low-income students to complete a bachelor’s degree by age 24.
Hanford’s research focused on a public charter school called YES Prep in Houston, Texas. YES maintained that if low-income students are given the same educational opportunities as private-school students they will achieve on the same level.
Hanford reports on research by Angela Duckworth and “grit,” a non-cognitive trait that can sometimes supersede knowledge because it allows you to stick "with things over the very long term until you master them,” said Duckworth in her paper “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals.” Grit, Hanford explains, might be the key difference between students who graduate from college or not.
Although Hanford is a seasoned veteran of long-form radio reporting, she warns students of the craft that documentaries like “Grit, Luck and Money” take a lot of time and that you have to collect “so much more tape than what actually gets used.”
Hanford spent about 20 days of straight reporting to complete the interviews she needed. She spoke to teachers and students at YES, as well as students who had graduated from YES and were currently in college. In many cases, students just wouldn’t get back to her, making her process of finding sources take longer.
Hanford also poured over spreadsheets of data of graduation rates from YES and surrounding schools. Being able to make heads or tails of that information was crucial to her quantitative reporting.
In the case of the students at YES that Hanford interviewed, more difficulties came from trying to interview some students who epitomized her subject: they had good grades in high school, got accepted into college, but couldn’t manage to graduate. Hanford noticed that those students felt like failures because the curriculum at YES stresses graduating from college so much. Students were reticent to talk because they felt ashamed.
“They go to college and they encounter problems and they leave. And then they feel like a failure.” Hanford said. “We’re creating a big mountain that people have to climb. It’s almost too much.”
Some of the best practices that Hanford recommends for aspiring documentary producers center heavily on interviewing tactics. She advocates being extremely prepared for interviews with notes and questions to keep you and your subject on track. And immediately after the interview is over, she writes down everything she noticed visually that wouldn’t be recorded by the tape.
The website for “Grit” links to Hanford's photos and supplementary materials. Hanford strongly encourages making full packages for broadcasts because they add a more interactive experience to the reporting. There’s “no such thing as just being a radio producer anymore,” she said.
Hanford's newest investigation of higher education, "The Rise of Phoenix," looks at the escalating debate over for-profit universities.
Sarah Hogue is a JCCF intern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org