It's always great to see readers weigh in on our stories in the comments section posted beside each of our pieces. But when I wrote a front-page take-out about race and school discipline in late December, the comments arrived in an online torrent.
By 9 a.m., with more than 2,000 posted, an editor asked me to jump in. The idea was that I could pose questions, build on ideas — basically engage thoughtful remarks and help facilitate a discussion that our readers seemed to want to have.
In a sense, it was like an online chat.
I introduced myself and asked readers about the merits of kicking kids out of school. A commenting badge appeared with my comments, identifying me a Washington Post staffer.
I mentioned the trends in our local area. I added some material about the latest research, which had been cut from the final version of my story because the piece was too long for the allotted space.
It was a heated and fast-moving debate.
I decided pretty quickly that it might help to bring in one of the experts I had quoted in my story. After all, I'd spent a couple of weeks on my piece. But Dan Losen, of UCLA, had recently authored a report on racial disparities for the National Education Policy Center, at University of Colorado, and spent much of his career studying the issue.
As it turned out, Losen had time that day, agreed to participate and offered comments on and off for a few hours. I think he posted half a dozen lengthy replies and observations. He pointed to research evidence from Harvard about racial bias, for example. He cited data from discipline studies in Texas and Indiana. He responded in detail to concerns and doubts about the implications of racial disparities.
Afterward, our online engagement team thought this set-up might be a model for future stories: Why not bring some of the people behind our journalism into the reader discussion that typically follows publication? That way, our readers gain access to people with whom they don't ordinarily get to exchange ideas. It might deepen the experience of reading and commenting; it might enrich the back-and-forth.
For my story, I'd say it clearly did.
Read the reports:
Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice Daniel J. Losen, 2011)
Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis (Daniel J. Losen and Russell Skiba, 2010)