“How can we describe D.C., and the underreported issues that are important to our communities, for a public audience?”
The question is relatively straightforward, posed to a virtual audience of parents, teachers, and high school students. Over the course of five workshops and a final, culminating celebration, it has become a refrain for the student journalists who participated in the Underreported D.C. project.
Led by staff from the Pulitzer Center education team, and supported by a grant from HumanitiesDC, Underreported D.C. is an ambitious project that aims to respond to the sometimes monolithic portrayal of Washington, D.C., in mainstream media and discourse. The project was centered around five virtual workshops for classes at four D.C. high schools by Pulitzer Center staff and local journalists, during which students worked to answer the guiding question above through expository writing, interviews, and photography. The project was also funded in part by the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities, an agency supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts
How can we describe D.C., and the underreported issues therein, for the public? For each student who participated in this project—125 in total, hailing from nine classes in four different schools and ranging in grade from ninth to twelfth, the answer looked a little bit different. From piercing, data-driven appraisals of racial injustice and police surveillance in communities to quiet, optimistic stories of local organizers and activists, the student journalists’ work, which is viewable on an online story map, covered a range of topics.
For student Tsegaye Williams, D.C. and his specific neighborhood can be described as “sometimes quiet, but there is always a heavy police presence. Everytime I walk out I always see police cars and at night I sometimes hear police sirens.”
Myles Davis, another student, describes his community as “a diamond in the rough … A quiet community that is tucked into a corner of chaos.”
Forrest Givens, a teacher at Coolidge High School who has many students featured on the story map, described mainstream news coverage of D.C. as being akin to only reporting on the skin of an onion. The news might be “covering the surface of the city, but it’s not covering the culture or the richness that this city has.”
Underreported D.C. responds to this incomplete portrayal of the nation’s capital in mainstream media. The students, in addition to their peers, covered topics that get behind what Givens referred to as the “layers” of D.C., the moments of joy, difficulty, and complexity, which make up the heart of this project.
The schools that participated in Underreported D.C. were Frank W. Ballou High School, Calvin Coolidge High School, Eastern Senior High School, and McKinley Technology High School, each school in a different corner of the city. With generous help from teachers, Pulitzer Center staff were able to direct five workshops with students at each school.
About the Underreported D.C. Workshop
The first workshop had students working to understand the scope of the project and the definition of an underreported story. The workshops generally began with Pulitzer staff asking students to think about the kinds of stories they might typically see when their city appeared in the news. For many students, whose workshops took place only a few weeks after the insurrection on the Capitol in January 2021, the common news stories that were lobbed into the chat box of the video calls at the workshops included “politics” and “Congress,” as well as “traffic” and “weather.” A perfunctory internet search for” Washington D.C. news” confirms that this assessment is fairly accurate.
What students needed to do, then, was to think about the D.C. stories that did not make it to the daily news. What stories were not being told?
As the Pulitzer’s associate director of education, Fareed Mostoufi, would frequently remind students during the first and subsequent workshops, “This is why we need you and your voices to tell these stories that aren’t being told.”
The first workshop ended with students being asked to write about their communities as they saw and experienced them. Descriptive passages abounded from this first exercise, with one student writing of a “quiet community tucked into a corner of chaos,” and another of the “loud lawnmowers and loud laughter of two friends who go way back.” These descriptions were the first entries to the slideshow presentations that went on to be the living document into which each component of the project was entered, drafted, and adjusted.
The second workshop was focused on the underreported issues themselves. With journalist Marina Walker Guevara, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the Pulitzer Center’s executive editor, students began to investigate how to find and report on stories from their communities.
Walker Guevara introduced students to her story “The Children of Lead,” which investigated an epidemic of lead poisoning among the residents of a small town in Peru. When describing the process by which she approached and covered the story, Walker Guevara asked students to determine themselves what in their communities was “not fair or not just.” She also asked them to consider, “What voices are missing?” and “What are proposed solutions and are they working?” Students used these questions to identify an underreported issue they wanted to highlight in their reports, and to start truly thinking and working like journalists: doing research, citing sources, and digging deeper.
Again, there was a broad range of underreported stories that emerged from the second workshop. Some students wrote about police surveillance and institutional racism, others of food deserts, sexual abuse, or gun violence. Many students wrote about gentrification, the rising cost of housing, and the economic pressures faced by their communities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The list went on, with students refining and researching their underreported issues by pulling statistics from reports from the office of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, or from national databases, and connecting the daily realities of their lives with lines of facts and figures.
The third workshop was with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Will Fitzgibbon, who provided students with techniques that could be used to interview people about the underreported issues they identified for their projects. Students were encouraged to “think like a journalist” and to brainstorm interview subjects. Many students chose to interview family members or friends. Some interviewed local organizers, or neighbors who had lived in their communities for 20 or 30 years. For one student, there was overlap here: Her mother, a “community activist and Capitol Hill resident,” spoke candidly about the “racist” and “paternalistic” roots of the “refusal of statehood” for Washington, D.C.:
“The city is not made up of indigents. There’s no reason for Congress to shepherd us or override the will of the voters of D.C. This is racism at worst and obstructionism at best.”
The fourth workshop was with photojournalist Allison Shelley. While clicking through photos she had taken to support past reporting projects, Shelley explained to students the art of visual storytelling. While reviewing photos that Shelley had posted to the Everyday Africa project, students reviewed how methods of framing, movement, and color could be applied to photos of their own communities. Students also learned about the rules of copyright, and searched through databases of public use images to find those that best suited their own projects.
The fifth and final workshop was an editing and working session where students were able to refine their work. In breakout sessions with Pulitzer staff and the students’ teachers, students read and responded to each other’s reports. The documents in which students worked had a flurry of activity, with students clicking through slides.
Publishing and Sharing Student Reporting Projects
The completed stories, with photos and interviews, were entered onto a story map, which linked to different intersections on D.C. streets. Users could move through the map, stories, and photos from different parts of the city.
The story map speaks to another goal of the Underreported D.C. project: the remapping of Washington, D.C. The map, as an interactive and exploratory experience, offers a topography of the city through the eyes of the teenagers who inhabit it every day. The photos that students chose to display with their work ranged from the polished or deeply sentimental to the mundane. In addition to a few family photos and images from copyright-free online libraries, many students chose to capture the view from their window: the crack in a sidewalk, the setting sun, an abandoned parking lot. The simplicity of the images seems to heighten the complexity and depth of the language.
The students and their collected work were the focal point of a celebration on March 11, 2021. Gathering virtually, two students from each school read their work aloud to an audience that included their peers, teachers, families, and the Pulitzer Center staff and journalists who had been in their classrooms for workshops.
The event opened with a few words from the Pulitzer’s Mostoufi. “At the Pulitzer Center, we support over 150 projects every year, by journalists based all over the world, who are telling stories ... that highlight things that are wrong or immoral, or the people that are helping … one story that we have not been telling enough is the story of our own backyard.”
Kim Stalnaker, a teacher at McKinley Technology High School, had students from three classes represented on the map. She noted, in the chat of the meeting, that the news neglected the lives, perspectives, and stories of “native Washingtonians.”
Mostoufi asked the teachers and student journalists to recall their favorite memories from Underreported D.C.
Erika Mathis, a student at Ballou High School, remembered a particularly impactful workshop. She recalled the message from the journalist who spoke to her class, who urged the students to “live through your stories.” She went on to consider her work on the project, stating, “Your story is not just something you put together, but you have to put yourself in those shoes that you write from. I was in my story. I was walking through my story. I was living in my story.”
Mathis was the first of the student presenters who shared their work at the celebration. Her story was titled “Black America’s Vision Through a Clouded Lens of the Pandemic.” Her description was lush, her voice straightforward and honest. She touched on themes that echoed in the work of her peers: racial injustice, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on D.C.’s Black community, the sense of a community at a crossroads, a community under attack by gun violence, police brutality, a drug crisis. Her presentation ended with a collage of photos, all Mathis originals.
“I got my community involved with this project because all of us go through a lot,” she said. “I thought it was important to show what happens here on a daily basis.”
Mathis got to the heart of the Underreported D.C. project. The stories on display, on the map, and being read aloud in the Zoom meeting, focused on the lived realities of these students and their communities.
The celebration offered an opportunity for the audience to peruse the map of stories from students at all four schools represented in the project.
After readings from other student journalists, the celebration came to a close with a few words from Andrea McNeil from the HumanitiesDC council. HumanitiesDC provided the grant which funded the Underreported D.C. project. The goal of that grant, Ms. McNeil noted, was to “make connections between humanities, journalism, democracy, and the informed citizen. You guys definitely hit the nail on the head with all of those connections and definitely blew it out of the water,” she said.
After providing students with certificates marking their participation in Underreported D.C., Mostoufi closed the event by asking the audience to share a single word describing the project and the celebration.
When attendees unmuted their microphones, the Zoom room was suddenly filled with a litany of sound:
As the room went quiet, the final word was of gratitude: “Thank you.”