Where to find the story: tips from fellow student journalists

An open book with a magnifying glass on top of the pages.

Over the past several months, high school and college student journalists from across the country shared examples of their bold journalism with us for our blog series Behind the Story.

As this school year gets going, we’d understand if you are still in your summer mindset and having trouble finding story ideas. So, to provide some inspiration, here are some of the places where these student journalists found their ideas. 

Explore our full hub of back-to-school guides, tips and resources here.

Have you been to a school board meeting?

Texas student journalists Sri Anchanta, Angelina Liu, Manasa Mohan and Srihari Yechangunja found inspiration for their story “‘We have the right to read’” after learning that a neighboring district’s school board voted to ban books in the district about gender identity. 

The students decided to investigate their own district’s policies and attitudes toward book bannings. Eventually, their research resulted in an excellent story. So, keep an eye on your own school board’s decisions and keep an ear out to hear what others may be up to.

P.S. It’s always a good time to write about student press freedom issues, especially at the local level! And school boards are just the place to get some critical information that can drive your reporting. Check out our guide for identifying your district’s student media policy and you may just find a story there (and get inspired to change or improve your district’s policy!).

What are your peers talking about? 

Schools are bound to have some unsubstantiated stories floating around the hallways. While not all of them may lead to a newsworthy story, following your news sense and investigating something promising can lead to a story like what Maryland student journalists Dani Klein and Ethan Schenker produced: “‘It’s getting closer and closer’: Debate team takes stock after students’ antisemitic comments on club trip.” If you hear people talking, use your instincts and investigate. You may just find a story there. 

P.P.S. While working on their story Dani and Ethan called the SPLC legal hotline for a pre-publication review of their story. So, know that if you’ve been working on a long-term, investigative, sensitive or controversial story, you can always contact SPLC attorneys through our hotline for a free pre-publication review to flag any potential legal problems or risks! 

Have you checked in with your past sources lately? 

Keeping in touch with your sources, even after you publish a story that features their interview, is important for cultivating good relationships with your community and potentially finding other stories later.

For example, New York student journalist Aleksandra Sidorova’s publication has a practice of reaching out to past sources for feedback and asking if they have any ideas for future stories. One of Sidorova’s sources shared an idea that eventually got her on the beat covering caregivers on campus, leading to her excellent story “Platts student-parent count not yet certain.”

Have you done your research? 

Collecting your own data is a great way to get the information you need to pull evidence for a story or to confirm (or disprove!) a suspicion you have that may lead to a bigger story. 

When they were faced with challenges trying to get sources on the record for their story uncovering a mental health crisis among resident assistants on campus, Iowa student journalists Olivia Brunsting and Caroline Christensen used an anonymous survey to get the information they needed. 

So, consider polling your student body, getting in touch with different groups of students around campus to gather some intel about the overall environment on campus, etc. 

SPLC can help you get the information you need!

Are you running into roadblocks trying to access important info you need for your story? You’re not alone. Check out some of our resources below, or you can explore our full library of resources here

And, if you are planning on using a poll or survey in your reporting, be sure to check out our survey legal guide. The key takeaways to avoid any issues? For public school students, surveys should be:

  1. completely student-initiated and student-run (keep teachers and other school officials out of it);
  2. voluntary; and
  3. high preference for anonymous surveys (particularly if distributed en masse). All three of those things should be noted clearly in the survey. 

Are there voices on campus that don’t always get a platform?

It is a journalist’s job to ethically and accurately tell stories to amplify historically marginalized voices. That applies to student journalists. 

Think about your outlet’s recent coverage: Whose voices are recent stories highlighting? Whose voices have been left out of the coverage? How can you help provide a platform for all voices in your upcoming stories? Just about all of the student journalists we’ve talked to reported stories that amplified these marginalized voices, so make sure to look through their advice and inspiration as you start brainstorming your own ideas. 

When reporting on marginalized voices, there are a number of resources that can help you ethically and accurately tell a story. Here are a few key resources to keep in mind: 

Have you checked out your library databases? 

Especially in a university setting, the library is a great place to find what faculty members and students involved in research are working on. 

Texas student journalist Leila Saidane found the idea for her story, “Putting a wrench in the school-to-prison pipeline: Alternatives to zero-tolerance discipline in public schools,” within the University of Texas library databases and was able to transform it into a much larger story. 

So, if you haven’t taken a trip to the library stacks or explored your library’s online resources, take some time to browse and you may find a great story!

What’s going on elsewhere that may affect your own campus? 

You’ve probably heard this one a million times by now, but it’s a tried and true method to write a great story: localize state, national or international issues. What are some of the most pressing issues facing the larger population? What are some interesting current events in the national headlines? How does that issue affect your own school community or particular members? 

California student journalists Sarah Mohammed, Emma Gao and Kinnera Mulam, for example, knew Hispanic Heritage Month was coming up, so they found a local angle and wrote a fantastic long-form story about Hispanic and Latinx culture at their school. 

Remember earlier when we said it’s always a good time to write about student press freedom issues? In our weekly newsletter (and on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn) we’re always sharing national stories about student press freedom that you could localize to your community! Subscribe and follow up to stay in the loop with all things student press freedom!