With Graduation Series, NPR’s Anecdotes Tell Only Part of the Story

NPR is marking graduation season with a series on recent grads and “the frustrations and fears they face as they set out in search of work.” But while these sketches are rich in detail, they suffer from that unfortunate journalism habit of looking for anecdotes in places where we’re comfortable, among wannabe writers and college journalism departments.

That’s not to say that the series doesn’t start with a good idea. Student loan debt is a real burden, and the job market is beyond tough. But it also matters how you tell the story.

There are lots of angles to choose from. Frontline’s College, Inc., program last month hit hard at the explosion of for-profit colleges that cater to non-traditional students in search of real-world skills—and the millions in federal financial aid they receive, leaving graduates with debt they can’t pay.

In March, The New York Times examined the booming enrollment at those for-profit colleges and trade schools during the recession, and graduates who borrow to pay for it, then don’t land the jobs they were promised.

NPR is taking a more anecdotal approach. Stories in the series have profiled a recent Brandeis graduate with a double major in English and creative writing whose “goal in life is to write stories for people to enjoy,” and an accounting grad from the University of Dayton.

Today’s entry is another media type. He’s just graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism with a degree in radio/television production. But his story is compelling—the son of an American Indian teenager, he was adopted by an older couple and became the first in his family to earn a college degree, though it took eight years to finish.

He’s been working his way through school, but also accumulated $50,000 in student loan debt, which he has to start paying back soon.

“When you’re in school, you’re getting these statements about what you owe, but you’re like, ‘I don’t have to pay on that until you graduate,’ ” Cowart says. “But now that I’m graduated the reality is setting in.”

But his tale also shows the limit of anecdote. He’d like to shoot and edit video, “traveling around and meeting people and just hearing stories,” or maybe start his own business. Yeah, me too.

Radio listeners don’t see the online headline of the story. But it declares “Dream Of TV Job Remains Elusive For Montana Grad,” though the piece tells listeners and readers that he hasn’t even started applying for jobs yet. And a journalism professor tells NPR that most of the school’s 2010 grads already have jobs, though their pay isn’t great. All in all, it’s hard to know what bigger lesson to draw from this piece.

With the huge pool of recent graduates across the country to choose from, it would be nice for NPR to venture to less familiar terrain.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.