Expert Commentary

Study-based story ideas for community journalists

Suggested ways to use scholarly research as a lens through which to see events in a reporter's area.

Journalist’s Resource encourages using scholarly research as a lens through which to see local events. Stories on a variety of topics — from immigration to water quality — can be enriched by referencing scholarly research and findings. Such data and insights can provide meaningful context that can elevate a reported piece and give it greater resonance.

Browsing research can also help stimulate new story ideas.

This site has a wider library of studies that might be useful in this way; and here are 10 representative studies that might be localized by reporters:

  1. Report on the dynamics between drivers and bicyclists on the roads. In recent years, many cities and towns have shown significant increases in bicycling. What’s happening in your community? Two pieces of research can provide frameworks: a study from the Harvard School of Public Health, “Risk of Injury for Bicycling on Cycle Tracks Versus in the Street,” and a study from Monash University, Australia, “Identifying Risk Factors for On-road Commuter Cyclists.” Is there tension between drivers and cyclists in your area? Has your municipality made physical and legal provisions for cyclists, and are they effective? How law-abiding are drivers and cyclists? Can you get statistics on accidents and incidents in your area?
  2. Track how public closed-caption television cameras are being used in your community. An analysis from Northeastern University and the University of Cambridge, “Public Area CCTV and Crime Prevention: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” concludes that cameras are more effective in some areas than others. Where are the cameras on your beat? Is there a coherent strategy behind where they are placed? How do citizens feel about them?
  3. Examine the impact of curfew ordinances in your community. A study from the University of California, Berkeley, “Impact of Juvenile Curfew Laws on Arrests of Youth and Adults,” shows that curfew restrictions lead to fewer crimes committed by both minors and young adults. Does your community have such a law or has it considered one? What’s the perspective of law enforcement? Of teens? Has additional manpower been provided to enforce the curfew? Is the added expense worth it?
  4. Look at vacant lots from the perspective of health and safety. A study from the University of Pennsylvania, “Analysis of Health, Safety, and the Greening of Vacant Urban Space,” looked at how improving urban acres can positively change community behaviors. Sociologists are interested in how both “broken window” and “incivilities” theories can play out in urban environments. How many vacant lots are in your community? What’s the history behind them? How do residents and law enforcement officials feel about them?
  5. Assess how much food waste is in your community and what is done about it. A study from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, “The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact,” looks at increases in the amount of food that is typically discarded, and the environmental consequences. Another study, this one from Columbia University, highlights how discarded plastic items may be potential sources of energy. How much waste is thrown away by schools, restaurants or other businesses in your community? A typical household? Is there anything that can be done in your area to reduce the amount of waste?
  6. Determine the extent your community encourages business and industry opportunities through tax breaks. A study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Who Offers Tax-Based Business Development Incentives?” finds a connection between communities that offer more tax breaks for businesses and instances of federal corruption. To what extent does your community’s business development strategy focus on tax breaks? How popular are these incentives with businesses? Do policymakers potentially benefit from this arrangement? What are some alternative strategies for enticing businesses to operate in your community?
  7. Take account of municipal greenery and plantings patterns. Ask how local residents feel about the way this is being done over time. A University of Pennsylvania study, “What Is a Tree Worth? Green-City Strategies, Signaling and Housing Prices,” shows how curbside tree planting programs in Philadelphia affected home values. Is your city or town doing a good job on this front? What about condo associations and neighborhood groups?
  8. See how well the local school system educates girls about politics. A study from the University of Missouri,“Gender Differences in Political Knowledge: Distinguishing Characteristics-Based and Returns-Based Differences,” suggests that the U.S. education system produces better results for boys in terms of instilling political knowledge. What are children in your area taught in lower-level civics courses? How about in high school history and contemporary issues courses? How do girls feel about the curriculum from this perspective?
  9. Investigate how your community handles smoking in public places. A study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Public-Place Smoking Laws and Exposure to Environmental Tobacco Smoke,” finds that bans on smoking in public spaces successfully reduce exposure to secondhand smoke. Where do smokers gather outside in your community to smoke? What are the smoking rules in your community’s public areas? In restaurants or bars? Have changes in smoking permissions met with approval or criticism, or impacted businesses’ profits?
  10. Evaluate your municipal “information environment.” A report from Pew, Knight and the Monitor Institute, “How the Public Perceives Community Information Systems,” suggests that how communities share information — particularly as it pertains to municipal government — relates to the strength of citizen activism, engagement and satisfaction. How would you rate your city, county or state’s website? Are steps taken to make sure citizens are “plugged in”? Are citizens satisfied with the level of information they receive and to which they have access?

Tags: children, politics, traffic, municipal, bicycling

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