Five tips on how to localize big national stories

Published on
January 13, 2015

EDITOR'S NOTE: On August 28, 2015, the Government Accountability Office announced that it will investigate the federal government’s nursing home rating system — the subject of Jeff Kelly Lowenstein's investigation for the Center for Public Integrity that spurred this essay.  Digging in to the data can make a difference.

So you've found a three-part series about nursing homes with downloadable data or a juicy national health report that you’d like to cover with a local angle.

You want to figure out how to localize the story so that you say something distinctive about what will be most relevant and interesting to your readers, but are not sure how to do so.

Here are some suggestions to get started.

1. Read the executive summary and the report for key points and for data sources.

Most reports have some sort of methodology when they identify the data sources they used for their project. Understanding both what the authors said in the report and how they did their analysis will help you have context for your local reporting and will help develop your sense of the tools available for you to do your own analysis later. I would strongly recommend learning how to speed read, as doing so increases your capacity to absorb large quantities of material in rapid fashion – a skill that is ideal for this type of project.

2. Download the data and do some preliminary analysis of it.

Many journalists are uncomfortable with math and statistics. I strongly recommend joining Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), as it's a tremendously supportive community for folks at all different stages of their careers and capacities. The organization's listserv is truly a place in which there are no bad or overly basic questions. It’s also a space where contacting the reporter who did the work is welcomed, not discouraged. (I’d recommend taking this step whether the reporter is part of IRE or not.)

Whether you join IRE or not, though, don't get intimidated by a spreadsheet. Rather, try to think of the analysis as interviewing the data. In order to do that, ask yourself, "What do I want to know?" From there, you can ask for support about how to work the program you are using to figure out how to best get that answer. In Excel, doing some sorts, pivot tables and calculations like percent change can often yield some intriguing findings without an advanced math background.

3. Work both ends of the issue.

Try to see how what you know about the local scene on the issue you're covering is either similar to, or different from, the national landscape and the major points identified in the report’s executive summary. At the same time, try to get a sense of how the national trends are reflected, accentuated or contrasted on the local level. The goal in this process is to have a telescopic understanding of the issue in which you understand the broader situation, the local context and the connection between the two. Developing this will help give your reporting a deeper sense of context and perspective.

4. Tap into others' work and ask for help.

I've mentioned IRE above, but you don't have to limit yourself to journalists. In our nursing homes project about staffing discrepancies, the input of Bita Kash, a professor at Texas A&M who was the lead author on a staffing article, and Charlene Harrington, a national authority on nursing homes staffing, was absolutely critical. Many academics are eager to see their work gain a broader audience and will be willing to help you understand their research and methodology. Using academic studies as a basis can also give you cover if you come under criticism for your findings by industry groups in the area you're covering. You also should feel free to do things like track down the same documents the reporter used and interview local experts and officials who can provide valuable context for regional nuances of national trends.

5. Have fun!

This can feel like arduous work, but it often uncovers all kinds of new and uncovered angles, which can pop up in the links in the story, in the methodology or in the footnotes.

For example, in the nursing homes project, we found a reference in a 2011 HUD Office of Inspector General report to a facility riddled with all kinds of problems. The report said the agency responsible for oversight was not aware of any of these care issues until the state shut down the home. We had to do some digging to link the project number in the OIG report to the facility name and previous history, and that work made the discovery all the more exciting. We included this nugget in our story — poor-quality nursing homes that received HUD-backed mortgages — as an example both of longstanding critiques about HUD’s oversight and as an illustration that issues of poor care extended beyond those nursing homes that had received the lowest possible overall rating for quality of care.

Cropped photo by Anthony Quintano via Flickr.