2017 Topical Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

Bridging the Divide

About the Project

It started the way most good stories do, with a veteran reporter hearing rumblings on her beat. Some high-level policy officials had made comments to education writer Liz Bowie that integrating schools might be the only way to erase the achievement gap between black and white students. That nugget evolved into a powerful, four-part series in The Baltimore Sun, “Bridging the Divide.” The stories revealed, with depth and emotion, how difficult it is to do the very thing that would help all children: integrate schools by race and class.

The subject matter was tough, and with reporter Erica L. Green and photographer Lloyd Fox, Bowie did dozens of interviews on four case studies, trying to find the human story behind each. In particular, they looked at a redistricting effort that involved 11 Baltimore County schools and hundreds of elementary school children.

Bowie viewed hours of online video of the redistricting meetings, so she could see how the integration effort fell apart. By going back repeatedly to the people involved, and through careful reporting, Bowie and Green were able to get people to speak candidly about their feelings. A white woman said it was all right to have some minority students, as long as there weren’t too many of them. The Sun also quoted a 5th grade black boy correcting his classmates about why other schools didn’t want them: “It’s because we’re black.”

This story and three others were showcased through an immersive digital presentation that featured compelling video, photos and graphics. With a grant from the Education Writers Association, The Sun commissioned University of Maryland researchers to create and analyze a database breaking down every state public school’s racial and socioeconomic makeup. Our readers dove into the resulting graphics and interactives, able to see how integrated their individual schools were – and for the first time, easily compare them – by race and socioeconomic class. Significantly, the data showed the state’s schools are becoming more segregated.

We had been told that people in Baltimore didn’t want to talk about race. But our series proved just the opposite: readers wrote letters to the editor and long emails to the reporters. Many said the series sparked them to rethink longheld beliefs. Because of the redistricting story, some white affluent parents reached out to the poor black parents, and Baltimore County schools may be accelerating plans to build a new school in the less affluent area.

The Sun also created a place for civil discussion on the series by hosting a community forum. When it was announced, the response was so overwhelming that we had to turn people away. Almost 250 people packed the room, done in partnership with Loyola University and Maryland Humanities. Another roughly 200 people watched the livestream on Facebook.

Through social media and online, the series and forum reached people around the country. More importantly, we have opened a crucial discussion in our community. We are proud to nominate this series for the Online Journalism Award for Topical Reporting.