The trial that is the trend story

Program’s capstone project puts young journalists to the test

Throughout the weeks before the “Generating Story Ideas” lecture, we would hear the phrase “trend story” roughly every other day. References would slip into some daily lectures and conversations with community associates, but we were never told exactly what writing a trend story entailed. I only knew it was a big deal.

We sat in that lecture for an hour and a half and listened how to brainstorm story ideas, interview strangers and deal with rejection from sources. We then had the rest of the day devoted to solidifying an idea and getting started on the story. At first, we were all in the same boat. Our brains were churning, trying to figure out what topics interested us and what societal trends we’ve noticed that no one else has noticed, or at least written about.

Definitely easier said than done.

For the following five hours, I cycled through the motions. I floated from my research home base outside Room 308 at Fisk Hall, through different brainstorming groups congregated in the hallway and occasionally to the instructors stationed in Room 311 when I felt a story idea had enough potential to be pitched.

Right off the bat, I knew the topic of religion intrigued me. But as the day progressed, my story pitches drifted further from my original topic of interest.  I pitched stories on diversity, privacy and equality.  My instructor, Cynthia Wang, vetoed every idea and kept steering me back to religion. She said she knew it was what I was interested in, and I wouldn’t get the most out of the upcoming week if I kept pitching stories about random topics.

At that point, I didn’t care. The 5 p.m. topic deadline had come and gone, and I was in the exact position I was in six hours earlier — without a topic. My instructor group sat in a circle and shared the ideas we came up with that day.  I heard topics relating to food Instagrams, the Libertarian Party and video games. I sunk further in my seat with every unique idea.

But when Natalie Swartz shared her topic of all-girls schools adapting to accommodate transgender teens, I was particularly interested. I thought about the way Americans have come to view accepting people in the LGBTQ community as morally sound when just a few decades ago it was not. I thought about the way people don’t automatically associate morality with religion anymore. I thought about the way the rise in young people abandoning religion parallels this shift in Americans’ perception of morality. And that was it. I had found my story.

The following six days were a blur. I was completely immersed in the world of religion on college campuses. I averaged about four hours of sleep a night. I gathered more than 12 hours of interview material. And even a couple weeks later, when I type the letter ‘g’ into my search engine, I am still immediately directed to gallup.com.

Throughout the course of that week, my thesis changed constantly. The more people I spoke to, the more nuanced my angle became. Even a week past the due date, I still have my trend story tab open on my laptop. Though I’ll never stop revising and discovering new angles, I’ve finally found a way of funneling my curiosity and passion for journalism into producing work I’m extremely proud of.

And without the push of my instructor or the insight of my peers, I would have never found that.