SUNSHINE WEEK: Computer-assisted reporting opens avenues to better records stories

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A citizen’s right to know and journalists’ rights to report are threatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on how student journalists can encourage open government and use open records to expand their journalistic horizons and let the sunshine in.

The advent of the digital age has been tumultuous for the journalism industry as more and more people turn to the Internet for their news — instead of the traditional outlets like newspapers and the television evening news.

At the same time, however, it has been a boon for the many investigative reporters who have incorporated computers into their work. With computer-assisted reporting, these reporters have been able to unearth compelling stories buried under mountains of records and data.

Although the term applies to any form of digitized journalism, computer-assisted reporting (CAR, informally) most often refers to the use of an electronic database to corral and cull statistical information, which in turn can be used to identify underlying trends.

It is that aspect — the ability to put stories in context — that makes CAR a valuable asset in the newsroom, said Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a group that regularly promotes CAR usage. With it, he said, one is able to spot out unique storyline notions that otherwise would go unnoticed.

CAR has its origins in the 1952 presidential election, when CBS used a database to predict the election in Dwight Eisenhower’s favor based on early exit polls. While a standard practice now, CBS officials initially were reluctant to broadcast the computer’s prediction that Eisenhower would win by a landslide, especially when most expected a close election.

The machine’s predictions were ultimately correct, and computers have been used to forecast outcomes of almost every election since.

Today, CAR has been especially successful when applied to investigations. Many open records requests yield a seemingly insurmountable stack of documents with no discernable trace of a story. The prospect of transforming that information into a news article can be daunting. But with database and spreadsheet programs, the information can be sorted and made more readable.

It is that ability to interpret information that has made CAR attractive to Bill Stith, an investigative reporter for The (Raleigh) News and Observer. The more one works with CAR, the easier it becomes to spot those nuances, he said.

“You don’t have to look for [the trend]. It finds you, if you’re knowledgeable about [CAR],” said Stith, who said he was hard pressed to recall the last inquiry he made that did not at least begin with CAR. (Stith is also the author of the helpful article A Guide to Computer Assisted Reporting on

For journalists who want to learn CAR, the process is not as challenging as some might fear, especially for students who are notoriously more tech-savvy than many elder reporters.

“I could take someone with a hunger and an IQ of a hundred, and in a couple of days, they wouldn’t be proficient, but they would be in the game,” Stith said.

Stith recommended focusing on one database program and thoroughly learning its capabilities. Although there are myriad programs available, some more complicated than others, many journalists might find Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Access simpler and more readily available.

While some CAR stories make use of advanced statistics such as surveying and scatter plotting, great story ideas sometimes appear simply by organizing the information columns and rows and sorting according to specific criteria. Want to know if male instructors at your school make more than female instructors? Rather than review countless pages of salary information by hand, plug the data into a database and sort it according to gender.

To lighten your workload even more, you could request records to be provided in an electronic format. The Federal Freedom of Information Act and open records laws in many states mandate that a public agency must provide the records in any format in which they are capable.

Digital records are most appropriate for computer assisted reporting, but sometimes only hard copies are available. In those cases, don’t be turned off by the timely process of entering the information into your own database. Fortunately, with the advent of the digital age, most administrative files now are maintained electronically.

Stith said he has had several telephone interviews in which he began by asking the source for a certain database that he received via e-mail by the end of the conversation.

Introducing CAR is not always such a breeze, though, especially for the student journalists who do not have easy access to the guidance of journalism professionals familiar with CAR. Luckily, IRE operates a specific program dedicated to CAR, the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting, which offers an online resource center and also offers training sessions in many major cities across the country.

The Web site maintains a record of thousands of past investigative stories, which can be used in brainstorming. It also offers a database library with extensive records of government information, ranging from census data to a list of federally approved gun dealers, stored in database format.

For student journalists looking for direct help, the IRE member community is full of knowledgeable journalists, many of whom are willing to lend advice, Houston said. Even for non-members of IRE, the organization’s listserv can be full of advice, he said.

“If someone is willing to put their energy, we’ll generally be there to help them,” he said.

IRE also publishes a bimonthly newsletter, Uplink, which details database techniques as well as real world CAR successes contributed by what Stith fondly called “IRE nerds,” — a moniker he admitted applied to himself as well.

Once CAR skills are introduced into a newsroom, they can be applied to reporting on every news desk — from hard-hitting crime news to feature stories of a lighter fare.

“We just use it everywhere, you know,” Stith said. “With records, there’s no way to really get a grip on what’s out there. There’s no way, there’s just too much.”

Computer-assisted reporting is not without its drawbacks, such as the time constraints of intricate long-term projects. Journalists laboring on an investigative piece might produce some great work in the long run, but at the expense of smaller, but no less important, day-to-day articles.

For student newspapers, where labor often is cheaper and more abundant, this should not pose as big a problem. Many student newspapers of sufficient size can form a separate “projects team” or “investigative team,” whose sole responsibility is to conduct investigations and utilize CAR.

Once that investigative mentality becomes commonplace in the newsroom, it tends to build roots. Editors will begin to think how stories can be improved with a database, and younger reporters will learn the capability of CAR from their example.

Over time, what develops will be the kind of culture that will turn an otherwise bland everyday front page into a provocative package that will grab your readers’ attention.

By Brian Hudson, SPLC staff writer