What a difference a decade makes. When the 1990 Census results were released, most United States news outlets greeted the flood of numbers with indifference or befuddlement. Back then, working with raw census data required arcane computer and statistical skills possessed by few reporters, and most had to wait for academic or government demographers to do the work. Not this time around. Hundreds of newspapers and even ambitious television and radio stations have been doing original demographic analysis – literally on deadline – with the 2000 Census. There are many reasons behind the aggressive coverage: the spread of computers into newsrooms, easier-to-use software, analysis skills honed by the precision journalism revolution, Internet data delivery and collaboration, and a series of well-attended census training seminars held around the country over the past year by Investigative Reporters & Editors. But the overriding reason is the wealth of good stories that can be found in the data. Wonderfully informative stories driven by census data already have been published around the country focusing on growth and decline, segregation, ethnic diversity, political redistricting, the impact of immigration, changing family structures and much more. The first wave of 2000 data came out in March, and a second – much larger – wave began rolling out of the Census Bureau computers in mid-June. But lots more data is still to come during the next couple of years, so don’t think you’re hopelessly behind if you haven’t yet done much with it. You still have time to learn to mine the data for good stories about your community. All the Census 2000 stories done so far have come from the so-called “100 percent data,” gathered from the surprisingly short list of questions that were asked of everyone. These questions cover only age, gender, race, ethnicity, family relationship, and whether the housing unit is owned, rented or group quarters. Longer and more varied questions were asked of a random sample of about one-sixth of the nation’s 105 million households. These questions covered such topics as education, employment, income, birthplace, mobility and language ability, as well as a variety of questions about the size, facilities and costs of the housing unit. But this rich “sample data” won’t be released until early next summer. Despite the comparative brevity of the “100 percent” questions, Census Bureau statisticians have sliced them exceedingly fine. The result, called Summary File 1, is a collection of hundreds of tables containing a total of more than 8,000 numbers describing every level of geography in the land, from the country as a whole down to each individual city block. These tables cover such topics as the population in one-year age increments, the size of dozens of specific Asian, Hispanic and Native American country origin and tribal groups, the myriad of modern family structures, the number of people in various kinds of living arrangements and much more. Big news organizations have specialists who understand the intricacies of working with the Summary File 1 data. But if you’re a print or broadcast journalist from a smaller newsroom, you can find good stories there, too. Here are some tips on how to get into the data: • Visit my “Reporting Census 2000” Web site at http://cronkite.pp.asu.edu/census. I was one of those handful of reporters who worked a lot with the 1990 Census, so I created this site to help journalists make good use of census data this time around. The site contains census glossaries, explanations of census geography, links to data sources, story ideas and much more. • Learn to use American Factfinder, the Census Bureau’s online data delivery site, at http://factfinder.census.gov. The Census Bureau has been a leader among government agencies in making data easily available, and Factfinder is the Bureau’s laudable effort to give even casual users fast access to demographic information. With pull-down menus and pick lists, Factfinder makes it easy to find the demographics for an area of interest. Better yet, Factfinder delivers not only 2000 data, but also comparable data from 1990. • Talk to your Associated Press state bureau chief about access to the AP’s Census 2000 data service. The AP, in cooperation with IRE, is taking the raw data as it is released and processing it into easy-to-analyze spreadsheet tables. This service allows even members who don’t have computer-assisted reporting specialists to do deadline stories when the data comes out.
• Join the CENSUS-L e-mail list run by IRE’s National Institute of Computer Assisted Reporting. Hundreds of census reporters around the country use this list to ask and answer questions about the data and discuss story ideas. Census Bureau experts, delighted at the attention their data is getting from journalists, also monitor the list and offer help. To subscribe, send the one-line e-mail message SUBSCRIBE CENSUS-L to this address: email@example.com. • Subscribe to the Census Bureau’s own e-mail press release lists by filling out the form at http://www.census.gov/pubinfo/www/subscriptions.html. The Bureau sends out a steady stream of releases, offering collections of census data that apply to all sorts of stories. The next time you get assigned to do a feature for Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day, or any other regular event, you’ll be glad you signed up. And if you’re a broadcaster, note that the Census Bureau even will supply sound bites and B-roll video. • At the same time, get yourself a username and password for access to the Census Bureau’s embargoed press releases by asking the Census public affairs office at 301/457-3030. • Finally, consider learning how to use a spreadsheet and mapping software. If you do, you’ll have a whole new set of reporting tools for census and many other kinds of stories. And by the time the 2010 Census rolls around, you’ll be one of the data gurus, too.
Steve Doig holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Telecommunication at Arizona State University. Before joining ASU in 1995 he spent nearly 20 years with the Miami Herald, where computer-assisted projects on which he worked won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the IRE Grand Prize and the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.