Five hard-won reporting lessons from a deep dive into California’s child care shortage
There were a handful of moments when I thought my reporting project on California’s child care shortage was going to fall apart.
In the end, I was able to produce three radio stories for my California Health Equity Fellowship project, which aired on The California Report, a statewide radio show. I also published an online guide on KQED.org.
The challenges you may encounter during your fellowship may differ from mine, but hopefully the following tips will help you keep going when the reporting process, or life in general, throws you a curve ball.
1. Ask a question that no one else is talking about.
Prior to the fellowship, I had reported on factors that contributed to California’s shortage of child care providers. While I was proud of my reporting on topics like low pay and suspension rates in preschool, I wanted to look at a question I felt everyone was talking around but not talking about: How a lack of child care impacts children. There are a lot of problems with the child care system in the U.S. and limitless ways of approaching the topic: its history, the prevalence of racism, or the economic impacts of not enough care, to name a few.
But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of coverage that meets parents where they are — without care.
Early in my reporting, I talked to a source who was trying to increase the number of Sonoma County employers offering on-site child care. She made an offhand comment that even if every employer in the county wanted to offer child care, there wouldn’t be enough providers to do so.
I came back to this comment a lot during my fellowship. Framing my stories around the inevitability that many children with working parents would not receive child care became a bit of a battle cry and a motivating goal for me.
Several times when I explained that I wanted my fellowship project to discuss solutions, coworkers suggested creating a guide to help parents find care. I didn’t want to do this, in part because each California county has at least one resource and referral agency that helps parents locate care.
But I also didn’t want to produce a guide on how to find care because I knew that not every family would be able to.
As you approach your fellowship, think about a reality that thousands of people are dealing with but few are talking about. Think about reporting a story that can help people either change their situation or better cope with it. That’s what kept me going.
2. Sometimes there’s no data and that’s OK.
At the beginning of my fellowship, I was certain that identifying how a child care shortage affects children was just a matter of finding the right statistics. I anticipated problems trying to compare incompatible data sets. For example, I knew the Center for American Progress’s data on child care deserts was based partially on census tracks. I fretted over how to relate this data to information based on school districts.
However, the problem I ran into was a lack of information. The statistics that I had planned on building my stories around eluded me. In large part, because they didn’t exist.
As I spoke to people in the early childhood care and education field, it became clear that a lack of quality care could leave kids unprepared for kindergarten. I thought the key to my story would be found in columns of statistics on kindergarten readiness.
But I soon discovered that kindergarten readiness in California is not tracked statewide. Of the school districts that do track, there’s no uniform assessment. This made comparing the kindergarten readiness of areas with lots of licensed child care providers against those with only a few providers very difficult.
So instead, I decided to share the story of one place, Sonoma County. Sonoma not only tracked kindergarten readiness , but local leaders connected a dip in readiness with a sudden and significant drop in available child care caused by destructive wildfires in 2017.
Focusing on Sonoma County was fortuitous: I found sources who let me observe their efforts to build up western Sonoma County’s stock of child care providers; I identified a program helping parents who did not have childcare outside of the home; and I connected with a mother who shared the painful story of how her child’s developmental delay went undiagnosed.
My project didn’t fall apart because I was able to adapt to the information available. My stories were not the grand, data-rich stories full of charts and maps that I had envisioned at the start of the fellowship. But they answered my guiding question and featured powerful voices.
3. Get creative.
My second story focused on the potential of employer-sponsored child care to help close California’s child care shortage. However, the companies leading this effort were very reluctant to give me access to their child care centers. One company told me outright that I could not visit. Another company allowed me to visit and record audio, but limited my interviews to parents they selected ahead of time. Much of the tape I collected that day felt inauthentic and unusable.
I thought hard about what was at the heart of the audio I collected — employees praising how much their company’s high quality, on-campus care helped in the early days of parenthood. Their situation was almost too good to be true — breastfeeding during breaks, a sprawling child care center with a science lab, even a designated space for parents to take business calls during drop off and pick up. I decided to get playful, and use humor to point out the absurd extremes in the quality of care families can access.
It was tempting to switch the focus of the story or cut the story all together. But I kept going. I turned a limitation into an asset.
4. Utilize your mentors.
Newsrooms are busy. Even under the best of circumstances, the likelihood that you’ll have an editor with ample time to support you and your solo reporting project is unlikely. And even then, those conversations often become clouded with the needs and priorities of the larger news organization where you both work.
That’s why my fellowship mentor proved crucial. Having an experienced journalist dedicating time to only you and your story is a rare gift. Use it.
In the first meeting with my mentor, I told him that I needed our conversations to be a safe space where I could lay bare my insecurities and ask a lot of questions. He assured me that he was more than willing to answer my questions without judgement and that he really wanted the fellowship to be a career accomplishment that I could proudly point to.
My mentor kept me going when my reporting hours were cut, when I felt like I had too little information to build a story on, and again later on, when I felt like I was drowning in hours of recorded interviews and scene tape. Yes, editors often cheerlead and support, but working with someone outside of my organization, whose entire goal was to help my project succeed, was uniquely empowering.
Decide what you want from your mentor and tell them. It will keep you going when you feel like you can’t.
5. Embrace the uncomfortable.
My project was larger in scope than the stories I usually work on. That meant my reporting style had to change. I talked to a lot more people than I usually do. I had more conversations on background, sans microphone. I immersed myself in communities where I was an outsider. I stumbled through conversations with my limited Spanish abilities and brought food to community potlucks.
By nature, these ambitious reporting endeavors should be uncomfortable. Embrace it. This is how we grow.