Sunday, December 14, 2008

Playing a Numbers Game

click here for a flickr slideshow on CAR

Imagine an innovation that changes the way an entire profession conducts its craft while making it easier and quicker to complete a once tedious task.

For journalists, that technology exists in the form of computer assisted reporting, or CAR. This tool began to take off within the last decade and it refers to the ever growing amount of resources available to reporters via online sources, computer databases, and other electronic documents.

Using methods such as searching online databases, requesting access for government documents, and using maps and other charts to obtain information, reporters now have at their disposal a wealth of organized information and statistics on everything from health inspection reports to the status of prisoners. In short, CAR a bevy of tools for use in the development, research, and reporting of stories, many of which are investigative in nature.

I realized everything was changing,” said Brant Houston, the Knight Chair for Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in response to the first time he was introduced to databases. “The tools that we potentially had as journalists were absolutely revolutionary for our craft.”

As it turned out, databases and other forms of CAR ultimately changed the face of journalism as Houston envisioned it doing. From a sheer standpoint of time spent gathering information, CAR has made formerly painstaking tasks quick and painless. Where looking for real estate or tax records used to take a couple of days to gather, that information can no be acquired in mere minutes thanks to information available through databases and other CAR elements.

Not only have databases cut down on the amount of time it takes to acquire information for a story, but they have also allowed journalists to report on stories that could not have been done before the technology existed. For example, Walter Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter at the Boston Globe, wrote a story about a Pulitzer winner, named Joseph Ellis, who had falsified a story about serving in Vietnam and in the civil rights movement. Robinson was able to uncover this story by using information he acquired through CAR.

"Ten years ago I couldn't have done that story at all,” said Robinson. “If you read that story and look at the various elements within that story, I think you’ll see where you find the intersection between information you can get by using the computer and the mortar I was talking about that sort of connects things.”

The mortar to which Robinson refers is the belief that a database alone is often not enough to base an entire story around, although they are certainly a start. Databases allow reporters to track down different sources, discover different angles, or simply boost the amount of solid evidence for a story’s case. As Robinson put it, think of pieces of data from a database as individual bricks with the actual reporting being used as the mortar that keeps those bricks joined and ties the story together.

The difficult part of that endeavor comes with trying to make sense of the information contained within a database. Once documents are acquired, programs such as Excel allow reporters to input the information and sort it in a way that makes the most sense for a story. Many databases contain thousands of figures, so zeroing in on a particular trend or story can be a difficult task, even for reporters with a great deal of experience.

"I have a database sitting on my desk, and I keep going back to it, but there was nothing that jumped out at me [for a story],” said Mike Beaudet, an investigative reporter at Boston’s Fox affiliate, WFXT. “It’s trial and error to a certain degree.”

A good local example of what can come from acquiring databases and using them at their simplest level is the "Your Town" feature Matt Carroll puts together for the Thursday print edition of the Globe. The feature, which is also archived on the Globe’s website, gives readers a feel for how their community compares with other communities in topics ranging from the number of Dunkin’ Donuts in a town to the number to the number of residents who own cars in towns around Boston by presenting the statistics in graph and data form.

"I could see it being helpful," Northeastern journalism major Pat Quigley said of "Your Town.” "If I stayed in Boston to work after school, this would be something I would use to help me pick a town to live in."

While finding and reporting information has become easier for reporters, it’s worth noting that many public offices and individuals still try many tactics when it comes to keeping some information private. There’s still some red tape to get through (some organizations try to block out names and other pieces of information or even refuse to give up documents), but an experienced reporter generally knows how to cut through that tape and use databases in a way that makes CAR so useful to journalism in this era.

“You’ll still encounter certain agencies that resist giving you information in an electronic form, but you sort of have to push them for it and ask for it,” said Beaudet. “They know media outlets are entitled to it, [and] they give it to you, ultimately, if you push. You just have to be pretty persistent.”

Despite the many benefits of databases and CAR, many journalists refuse to use these tools because they’re thought to be too complex and take up too much time. Houston recalled that as recently as 2000 some editors were telling him that the web was nothing more than a fad that would ultimately pass. When it comes to the Globe, Carroll is one of the few reporters at the newspaper who has an extensive knowledge on the subject, thus making him the man most go to in the newsroom when a question regarding databases arises.

For older journalists (and young ones) who aren’t convinced that learning databases and CAR is worth their time and energy, it’s important to take one thing into consideration: job security.

“[Knowing databases] is definitely an asset in a world where there’s a lot fewer jobs than there were a year ago,” said Carroll. “It makes me a lot more flexible and gives me some importance within the building and within the industry, which is nice.”

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