Whether or not you’re a census reporter, eventually you’re going to need census data.
When St. Louis Post-Dispatch features reporter Lorraine Kee was working on a story about a new Ken Burns documentary about Hannibal, Mo., she needed population figures for the Twain town.
When crime reporters need to look at the number of murders in a particular city, they use population numbers so they can look at the rate of homicides per 100,000 people instead of just the raw number of people killed. That makes for a comparison that is fair; otherwise, the largest cities would always appear to have the most crime simply because they have more people.
But thanks to some tools built by the U.S. Census Bureau, much of the time, you don’t need to do a lot of fancy computing. You just need to know where to find the information.
To get, say, a population for a city from the 2000 census, go to the Census Bureau’s Web site and click on “American Factfinder.”
Bookmark this site or make it a favorite so you can get to it again in the future.
The Census Bureau has created a user-friendly menu to help users get the data they need. Most of the time, you’ll use this window:
Let’s say we want to get the population of Edgar Springs, Mo. (The population center of the country.)
Click the down arrow on the box that says “the United States” and choose “a city or town.” You’ll get a new box that looks like this:
Click on the down arrow next to “–select a state–” and pick “Missouri” from the list. Once again, the page will reload and give you this window:
From the drop-down menu in “–select a place–” choose “Edgar Springs city,” and then click “Go.” Keep in mind that some areas you may think of as cities may not be incorporated places according to the Census Bureau, and therefore they might not show up here.
Next, you’ll get a little profile for Edgar Springs:
To get different data from your query, click on the arrow next to “Population and housing” (on the same screen that you chose “Edgar City”). Currently, the types of data you can get include home ownership (called “tenure” by the census folks), occupancy, race, age, gender and household composition.
This list will continue to grow as more census data is released later this year.
The American Factfinder site also let’s you pull up geographic comparison files. With these files, you might want to look at a few characteristics for every state or for every county within a state.
If you want to do a little more with your data, bring it into Excel, where you can do further computations or sort it.
Follow these steps to get your data into Excel:
1. Once you have a table on your screen, choose FILE/SAVE AS from the application menu and save the file to your computer. Remember where you put it.
2. Go to Excel
3. Choose FILE/OPEN and next to FILES OF TYPE choose HTML Documents
4. Find the file on your computer to open it.
If you want to get rid of any fancy formatting, highlight the data you want. Then in a fresh spreadsheet, choose EDIT/PASTE SPECIAL and click the VALUES button. You’ll get your data without formatting.
During the past nine months, the Census Bureau has released most of the data from what’s known as the “short form.” That’s the form that went to everyone. From that form came data such as population, race breakdowns, home ownership and age.
Some data has been released from the “long form” that went to one out of six households. But it only has been released at the state level and only in a few categories.
Later this year, long-form data for small geographies (counties, places and census tracts) will be released. This release of data will include information such as employment, income and how many toilets a household has.
For more information about reporting on the census, go to cronkite.pp.asu.edu/census. This is a site developed by Stephen Doig at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. The site includes everything from tips for getting data to examples of stories that reporters have done using census data.
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.