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Using data to cover a beat


Students read a blog post on using data to find stories, then apply the principles to their own beat coverage and generate story ideas.


  • Students will be able to read and extract the main ideas from an article.
  • Students will discuss and evaluate the ideas, applying them to their local context.
  • Students will generate three story ideas of their own, using and analyzing data related to their individual community.


Common Core State Standards


CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.2 Determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to provide a complex analysis; provide an objective summary of the text.


90 minutes




“Finding stories in census data” (link)

Handout: “Finding stories in census data” Guiding Questions

American Fact Finder census database (link)

Computer with Internet access


Lesson step-by-step


1. Introduction — 10 minutes

Begin class by asking students to raise their hands in response to a series of questions. As they raise their hands, write the number of responses to each question on the board.

  1. How many of you rode your bike to school today? Walked? Took the bus? Were dropped off by someone else who drove? Drove yourselves?
  2. How many of you traveled less than one mile to school? Between 1 and 3 miles? More than 3 miles?
  3. How long did it take you to get to school today? Less than 5 minutes? 5-10 minutes? More than 10 minutes?
  4. How many of you had to wait in traffic at some point on your trip to school?


Explain to the class that together, you just created a limited data set. In particular, you created a set of data relevant to school transportation. And if you were responsible for covering school transportation as your beat, this set of data might help you to find stories.


For example, if only one person traveled more than 10 minutes to get to school, that might be an interesting story. Where does this person live? Do others live out there? Is it difficult for kids who live in a certain part of the district to get to school on time?


If some who live less than one mile from the school were also dropped off by their parents, there may be an interesting story there. Are their parents afraid to let them walk to school? Are those drop-offs causing more traffic congestion for students who live too far to walk? Is it actually any faster than walking?


2. Guided reading — 30 minutes

Ask students to read the article “Finding stories in census data” by Los Angeles Times reporter Emily Alpert Reyes. While reading the article, they should answer the guiding questions provided. You may consider allowing students to work in pairs to complete this task.


After about 20 minutes have passed, bring the group back together for whole class discussion of the article. Work through the guiding questions, asking volunteers to share their responses.


3. Online search and story generation — 30 minutes

After members of the class have a comfortable grasp on how Reyes suggests reporters find stories from data, students will use a set of data to generate story ideas and leads.


Working together in partners or small groups, students should visit the American Fact Finder census data website. There they will be able to search through data related to their community and neighboring communities.They should choose specific data points that interest them and develop questions and curiosities that they can use the database to explore. As they search through the data, they will need to discuss with their group or partner potential story ideas. They should complete the following chart in their notebooks or directly on the guiding questions handout:


Interesting data/finding What I wonder or predict about this data People I should find or talk to in exploring the story (sources)


4. Sharing — 15 minutes

Once students have generated story ideas, bring the whole class back together for a culminating discussion. Ask volunteers to share story ideas their groups developed.


As the discussion concludes, remind students that all of these story ideas came from just one set of data, but data is available all around us. Ask the following:

  • What other sources of data are available?
  • What might be useful data if I am covering the cafeteria beat? What about a parent/booster beat? Or a sports beat?
  • How might I collect data if it doesn’t already exist? How can I ensure the data I collect is reliable?


5. Exit ticket — 5 minutes

Ask students to consider one of their own beats (or a beat they select from a list, if they don’t have their own beats). They should complete the prompt: As a beat reporter for __________, I would like to see data on _________. I wonder…




For more advanced classes, in lieu of providing guiding questions the teacher may ask students to read and annotate the text.


Some less advanced students may struggle if given the entire census data website to explore. In that case, the teacher may provide limited findings in printed form for groups to analyze. Expect less variation in this model.