Stories to Count On
We’ve all been there: A news meeting is fast approaching at your student media office, and you’re not sure about a story to pitch. Professional journalists make it sound simple – they say to do research, pay attention to the outside world, talk to people and above all, be curious. While these are all important tips, there are some additional avenues for a student journalist. Fortunately, universities and cities have a handful of institutions that provide news on a consistent basis. Outside of their day to day activities, most of these institutions have events or annual reports with predictable release dates. These time stamps make for important and timely news stories.
Annual Security Report
The Clery Act requires any college or university that receives federal funding to publish an annual security report. The report must include campus crime statistics for the past three calendar years, as well as policy statements regarding future crime prevention. The law instructs universities disseminate this report by Oct. 1 every year. You can write about the report’s content when it is released – comparing the current year’s crime to previous years and updating readers on new policies. The story can be supplemented by voices from the university’s law enforcement and concerned students.
Police Department Annual Reports
While it is not legally required, most police departments in large cities publish annual reports. These reports typically review the department’s policy changes and accomplishments from the past year, as well as crime data and use of force concerns. The reports may also include budget information and departmental goals for the upcoming year. The release of these reports varies by department, but they are generally published at the end of a police department’s fiscal year. When writing about a report, compare current data to past reports and see how previous goals have panned out. You can source your story with officials from the police department, city council members with a stake in the report and, if the data calls for it, police reform activists.
The Red Zone
According to Inside Higher Ed, women students are most at risk for sexual assault during the first few weeks of every new academic year. Known as “the Red Zone,” the first six to eight weeks of every fall semester statistically have more sexual assaults than the rest of the year at universities. You can request the number of reported sexual assault cases from your local police department in this time period, and college police departments are required to notify students when a report is filed. When writing, try to compare the data to previous years’ Red Zones. It is also important to note that these Red Zones can consistently flare up again at certain times of the school year; for example, around homecoming, rivalry games and other campus events. Possible sources can include law enforcement, sexual assault prevention activists and Title IX officials at your school. Remember that there are real victims behind the numbers, so don’t treat the story lightly and be sensitive with your sources.
In the U.S., there are elections that affect the federal, state or local levels of government each year. Thousands of universities across the nation have polling stations, and students are a critical part of the democratic process. When election day rolls around, consider doing a simple story on voter turnout at your school. County clerks can give you an up-to-date number of the ballots cast in your city, and numbers for on-campus locations are also available. You should mention the election results early in your story. It’s important to include early voting numbers, and don’t forget to compare the turnout with previous years. Contact get-out-the-vote organizations and student voters themselves for interviews.
Legislative bodies of students are responsible for significant changes and controversies at a university. These institutions of student government have reportable developments ranging from annual elections to weekly assemblies. Although time stamps for these activities vary, you can write about them on a consistent basis by covering proposed legislation and election results. In these stories, use the voices of candidates, bill authors, student spectators and any form of opposition.
University Response to Texas Legislation
The Texas Legislature meets at the Capitol every other year during even-numbered years to participate in a 140-day-long regular session of bill-drafting, debating and voting. More than 4,500 bills passed in the 2019 legislative session, and given that almost 20% of these took effect Sept. 1, there’s plenty of material for a student journalist to cover during the school year. For instance, you can write a story that tracks student reactions to a bill raising the smoking age to 21. On the other hand, much of the legislation passed directly affects how public universities operate. An example of this is Texas Senate Bill 18, which made common outdoor areas at public universities an available forum for free speech. In this instance, you can report on how your school is changing its speech enforcement policies to comply with the new law. Due to the breadth of legislation passed in Texas each session, there are a variety of different things to follow, angles to take and sources to find when the session wraps up and the school year begins.
Public University Budget
Universities, university systems and community colleges release annual budget reports that often contain scoop-worthy information. House Bill 1016 requires that these reports are made available to the state legislature and the public in an electronic format. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board mandates that universities compile and submit these reports to the Governor’s Office of Budget by Dec. 1 each year. In your story, break down the budget into percentages – seeing which portion of it goes to faculty compensation, research, scholarships and so on. You can also compare the new fiscal year’s budget with past years and look into ongoing projects the budget is prioritizing. Sources for this story can include the university’s budget office, the president’s office or people who have a vested interest in the new budget.
Barring medical reasons or conscientious objection, Texas law requires all college students be vaccinated against bacterial meningococcal disease. Under the Texas Public Information Act, you can request the number of exemptions your university has recorded each year along with the specific reasons for each exemption. Although these documents are available anytime you submit a request, you can write a story about them every fall and couple the data with enrollment numbers. You can source your story with school health officials, concerned students, and, if you’re brave enough, students who were exempted from the vaccine.
Annual Graduation Rates
The U.S. Department of Education requires universities to annually report degree attainment by students who graduate from their institutions. These data are often accompanied by enrollment and demographic statistics across the university. Typically published every fall, this information can altogether be drafted into a story. Journalists can compare the graduation rate to previous years, and they should include information on overall enrollment and minority student population changes. In this case, the percentages of out-of-state and automatic admission students are pertinent. The story can be supplemented with interviews from the university’s enrollment office, recent graduates, incoming freshmen and organizations promoting diversity across campus.
As a student journalist, it is important to get a pulse on your classmates’ ideals by reporting on their demonstrations. At some universities, this can take the form of well-scheduled, annual protests. For example, the University of Texas at Austin has an annual spring march by graduate students demanding higher pay; annual protests from pro-life and conservative organizations that have grabbed headlines from national news outlets; and even Palestinian-liberation counter-protests at every fall Israeli block party. The situation is similar for many schools in the state. You can find out about recurring protests from past news articles, bulletin boards on campus and word of mouth. When reporting, make sure to keep your facts straight and get both sides of the story.
Several universities across the state habitually donate to less-fortunate students or the surrounding community. Often organized through annual food or toy drives, colleges place bins across their campuses to pool student and faculty resources for charity. These events are often marked by the holidays or have some other annual time frame that makes it easy for student journalists to report on. If you decide to write about one of these, draw from the voices of charity organizers, givers and recipients. Count the number of goods or ask for the sheer poundage of what was donated.
Campus Call Boxes
Universities across Texas are often equipped with emergency call boxes on their campuses to protect students and pedestrians. Police departments collect calls from these boxes, and student journalists can write an annual story based on these numbers. Simply request this data from the police department that responds to these boxes, or file a Texas Public Information Act request to formally receive the information you’re looking for. In the story, identify the number of call box responses that amounted in an arrest, the number of false alarms and the reasons for each call. Reach out to police officers and students for interviews to help tell the story.
If none of these ideas work for you, a great way to ensure a steady stream of stories is by posting a reader-submitted questions segment. Readers directly represent campus life and find questions that student journalists often overlook. The opportunity to submit questions provides a voice for student concerns and gives students a chance to say what’s on their mind regarding your university. Apread the word on Twitter, publish it to student media websites or simply ask your friends. This segment can generate story ideas on a daily to weekly basis, and every time you receive a question, you already have a source in the bag.