If I learned anything during my two weeks in Boston, it’s that there’s always room for improvement.
I boarded my flight in the San Francisco Airport as a recent high school graduate with three years of journalism experience and recognition — including the 2017 JEA National Journalist of the Year and the 2017 National Watchdog Reporter award — to show for it. Knowing that I would be one of the more journalistically skilled students, I didn’t expect to learn much.
However, I was pleasantly surprised.
My morning classes at Boston University‘s NECIR Investigative Reporting Summer Workshop mostly consisted of refreshers for the first hour on the basics and a stressful-but-fun writing assignment during the second hour. My favorite piece of work was an article I wrote about a fellow classmate whose father’s job directly affects her journalism career.
Her dad works in politics, and as a result, she was asked to use her connections to write a tell-all about her feelings on President Donald Trump’s inauguration and get tickets to Obama’s farewell speech for her newspaper staff. She refused to do both.
By the time I finished the fascinating interview, I had less than 30 minutes to write the story by hand. I had never handwritten a story before, let alone on a 30-minute deadline. Yet, I somehow managed to turn in 250 words just in time.
If I hadn’t come to the workshop, I probably never would have experienced the frustration of scribbling out entire sentences and ripping out a new fresh piece of paper each time I thought of a better lede. Because of my instructor’s insistence on handwriting all assignments, I have a newfound respect for journalists who lived before the digital age.
The afternoon classes didn’t have the same quick turnarounds (and we were allowed to type our articles!). Instead, we spent two hours each day searching databases, skyping with a food safety expert and conducting person-on-the-street interviews to investigate the various problems involving food safety – ranging from food recalls to misleading labels to climate change.
For my individual investigation, I explored food safety issues in school lunches. At first, I wanted to localize the topic by cross examining my school district’s food vendors and all the food recalls in the last year. I found that my school district uses the food vendor, Integrated Food Services, who in June 2016 had recalled ready-to-eat sandwiches for possible listeria contamination.
However, I wasn’t able to confirm with my school district that they had been serving those ready-to-eat sandwiches at the end of last school year. So I changed my story’s angle to a national focus.
My mentor, Rochelle Sharpe, was supportive throughout the whole process. She researched foodborne illnesses contracted in schools right alongside me and recommended transitions that made the article flow smoother. Rochelle helped me take my writing to the next level and has inspired me to re-investigate food safety when I start college in two weeks.
Another person who inspired me at NECIR was Jenifer McKim, a journalist whose reported on lead poisoning from Mexican candy and sex trafficking scandals in the greater Boston area. While I chose food safety for my StoryLab topic, I was also keenly interested in the investigation Jenifer led on AstroTurf, synthetic turf made of tires that contains several cancer-causing carcinogens.
The day after the workshop ended, I emailed Jenifer about the resources her group used to explore the controversies surrounding AstroTurf and plan to investigate the subject in junction with food safety over the next few months.
Looking back I can see there were a number of experiences at the workshop that expanded my thinking about story content and improved my writing style. Journalism encompasses an incredible amount of depth and breadth and repeatedly has shown me that there is always more to learn.