Two hours before deadline one day last December, Joe Kolman, a reporter for the Omaha World Herald, noticed a reference in the daily budget to “bird strikes” on aircraft – the problem of birds getting in the way of airplanes.
Thinking someone might keep track of such incidents in a database, Kolman did some research and called several colleagues around the country. He found out about Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard teams (BASH). He contacted BASH headquarters and was able to find the keeper of the data who emailed him an Excel file listing numbers and incidents of bird strikes across the country.
Using the file along with some sorting and pivots, he was able to show that in 15 years, nearby Offutt Air Force Base sustained $4.9 million in damage from collisions with animals (mostly birds). That level ranked Offutt third among U.S. Air Force bases.
Whether you’re looking for Air Force collisions with cruising creatures or demographic trends for your city, you might just find what you’re looking for in a database.
Most reporters have gotten a copy of a report after a serious automobile accident on a dangerous segment of your local freeway. What if, in addition to the reporting you’ve always done, you could look at every other accident that has happened in that same spot and put the story in perspective?
“But the highway department can give me those numbers,” you say.
True, but there might be a time delay for them to send you the information: “Gee, Leon is out sick today, and no one else knows how to do that.” If you already have the database, you could get your answers with a couple of quick queries.
What if the accident on which you’re reporting involved passengers not wearing their seat belts? With a database, you could filter out those specific types of accidents.
Whether you’re covering an accident or another event or topic, data can help you tell a better story. If the thought of bits and bytes makes you queasy, forget that it’s data. Think about it as a collection of public records. That’s something you deal with regularly anyhow.
DATABASES GIVE YOU MORE
Rather than writing a story based on a few analogies, having the database gives you the whole population. That not only gives you a bigger picture of your overall subject, it also gives you a chance to pick your best anecdotes. The people you need as examples or organizations that illustrate the point of your story are part of what you’ll find as you sift through your data.
Data analysis doesn’t just mean finding overall numbers – it gives you a huge list of possible subjects for stories. If you’re doing a story on blighted buildings, what could be a better resource than a database of all the buildings in your city?
Because you have an entire “population,” you have the highs and lows so you can compare the various ends of the spectrum. This might be useful if you’re looking at census data or crime data so you can look at the top, the bottom and where your city or county stands.
By doing your own data analysis, you’re producing the research, not just rehashing someone else’s work.
Several of the big stories in 2001 could not have been done without computer-assisted reporting. When the U.S. Bureau of the Census released its 2000 figures, it did so in the form of databases posted on its Web site. Reporters who were able to do timely stories had to download the data into a database manager to do their reporting. (Or they bought the data from The Associated Press, which also crunched the numbers on deadline.)
When the events of Sept. 11 occurred, data-savvy reporters throughout the country turned to the Federal Aviation Administration’s enforcement data and were able to show whether their local airports had previous problems with security breaches.
Getting started in computer-assisted reporting requires a few tools, some patience and some practice.
One of the tools you’ll need is a spreadsheet program such as Excel. This is a substitute for things you might already be doing using a calculator and pencil. Use a spreadsheet to analyze a city or school district budget, look at trends in public salaries, or find your local areas with the biggest population increases.
Another tool for computer-assisted reporting is the database manager. A database manager is like an electronic filing cabinet. It is a software program that lets you look at thousands of documents in a few, key strokes. For example, if you had a pile of health department restaurant inspections in hard-copy form, finding the trends in the documents would be time-consuming. With electronic copies of those inspections, you can look at trends using a few commands.
To get some basic training under your belt, see if your state media association is planning any upcoming training sessions. Also, check out a local community college or try to get your editors to spring for a week at a boot camp held by the Investigative Reporting and Editor’s National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.
Then head out to do some “nerd bonding” on your beat. Get to know the data processing folks on your beat and try to figure out what databases they keep. If you can get some good data ahead of time, you won’t have to try to do everything on deadline. Try looking for opportunities where you can to drive a little CAR into your stories.
“I try to keep on top of stories in the daily budget, to see if there are any CAR angles that I can add,” Kolman said.
Jennifer LaFleur is the computer-assisted reporting editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she writes, analyzes, edits and coaches her way through data-based stories.