When computer-assisted reporter Burt Hubbard compared Colorado cities with 2000 census data, he found that the resort town of Breckenridge was home to the highest percentage of men in the state. A team traveled there to report the story.
The photographer hit a goldmine: A couple was sitting together at a bar, kissing, while a lone male sat beside them with a forlorn look on his face. He snapped a photo.
“What makes census stories really rich is when you go out and start talking to people in those areas,” said Hubbard, who now works at the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network. “That’s where the census stuff really comes alive.”
The 2010 census is well under way, and as workers tally the results, reporters are preparing to use the flood of data to provide a better snapshot of their communities.
“The good news is there’s almost too much information,” said Paul Overberg, USA Today database editor. “That’s also the bad news, though, if you’ve never really dealt with it.”
The U.S. Census Bureau will release official national and state population counts at the end of the year. These numbers determine what states will lose or gain seats in the House of Representatives, and the data have to be delivered to President Barack Obama on or before Dec. 31.
By March 31, 2011, the Census Bureau will release more detailed data “to help states redraw congressional, state and local legislative district boundaries in a process called ‘redistricting,’” according to the bureau website.
These data are used in political stories that show how redistricting affects where people go to vote and whom they’re voting for, Overberg said.
In the spring, more detailed data will be released regarding race, gender and age. News outlets can use this to track what portions of their town have changed the most, whether in population or diversity.
When Hubbard’s newsroom examined neighborhood trends, they found a suburb of Denver with a very large Asian population and a number of Asian markets in the 1990s. In the 2000s, many Latino families moved into that neighborhood, and you suddenly saw Asian markets with signs in Spanish, Hubbard said.
“Going out and talking to the people who are living the trend, that to me is the most fascinating,” he said.
One important story gleaned from the detailed results is what Bobbi Bowman calls the “kids story.”
“If you look at kids in your community under 5 and the majority of them are minorities, that’s your future,” said Bowman, diversity consultant to the American Society of News Editors.
She said this census will be one of the most historic censuses that the U.S. will ever see, and it will reveal that the U.S. is going to become a majority minority nation by 2035. Journalists can compare 2000 census results with these fresh results to determine how the number of minorities changed in their neighborhoods within the decade.
“No other country has gone through the kind of demographic change that this country is going to go through in the next 25 years,” Bowman said.
News organizations should also keep track of hot-button political issues happening in their communities so they can apply them to census data.
Arizona State University professor Steve Doig is a former research editor for The Miami Herald. He now resides in a part of the country where he says illegal immigration “hysteria” is taking place. Census information will determine whether this hysteria has chased away Latino residents in certain neighborhoods.
For journalists looking at the bigger picture, census data can be used in stories years after the information is released, and it contributes to what Bowman calls “ooze news.”
“It’s not a breaking news story,” Bowman said. “It’s not a house burning down. It’s not politicians fighting with each other. It’s a slow, slow story, and we’re going to wake up and the world has changed.”
The Advantage to Computer-Assisted Reporting
SPJ Journalism Education Committee Chairman Jeff South said computer-assisted reporting can empower journalists to tell stories to those who wouldn’t be able to root through census data on their own.
“Your everyday blogger out there may not be able to mine the data like a journalist can,” South said.
Doig began experimenting with computer-assisted reporting in the early ’80s. After buying himself an Atari 800 computer for a couple thousand dollars, he convinced The Miami Herald newsroom to purchase an IBM PC to help with data sets.
“I realized that it would help me basically compete in what was a competitive newsroom,” Doig said. “We were surrounded by Pulitzer winners and so on, and it was my way to stand out, learning this type of technology to analyze data.”
But journalists don’t have to be particularly strong in computer-assisted reporting to use the census to strengthen their stories.
“You can use census data on almost every beat,” said Doug Haddix, training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors. “You don’t have to be a demographics reporter to find use for this. So many stories can be made stronger by looking at the underlying demographics.”
Watching the Bureau
The Census Bureau has been working on this year’s count since 2008, when it hired local workers for early operations.
In March of this year, forms were mailed to households, and now they continue to sort through answers and compile data.
The 2010 census was expected to cost about $14.5 billion, and the bureau announced in August that it returned $1.6 billion in operational savings. About 3.8 million people were recruited to carry out census operations, according to the bureau. With an operation this large, journalists are expected to keep an eye on the numbers.
A great story that can be told is the number of people who are missed by the census. Reporters have to acknowledge that a lot of people are missed, but many are missed by polls that journalists use in their stories every day, South said.
“It’s not a perfect survey, but it is the official survey,” he said.
D’Vera Cohn, senior writer at the Pew Research Center and former Washington Post demographics reporter, said that as far as census accuracy goes, the bureau publishes quality indicators to show how trustworthy the results are.
“There is actually quite a bit out there that can let a sophisticated user judge how good the numbers are,” Cohn said.
And then there’s reporting on alleged conflicts of interest, wasteful spending and bureau worker inefficiencies.
Stephen Robert Morse is founder and executive editor of MyTwoCensus.com, which serves as a watchdog of the 2010 census. He checks claims the bureau makes on its website as well as investigates tips that are sent in by whistle-blowing census workers.
“The government is reading the things that I write, which is probably the most important thing,” Morse said.
He encourages readers to e-mail him directly and send anonymous tips if they’ve witnessed troubling practices. At the height of this year’s operations, he received about 50 tips a day.
Morse said he hasn’t seen a lot of watchdog reporting done by other news organizations, and he’s usually breaking census watchdog stories first on MyTwoCensus.
“(Reporters) probably just don’t have time to investigate like I do,” he said. “This is my beat, essentially.”
Making Sense of the Census
There are many tools journalists can use to ensure they’re prepared to sort through the extensive amount of data, which South describes as “not for the faint of heart.”
First, learn the higher, more in-depth functions of Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Access, which can both be used to organize the findings. On the Census Bureau website, there is a list of resources journalists can use, such as census quick facts and software for hefty data downloads.
Haddix with Investigative Reporters and Editors said many journalists used mapping software during the 2000 census to help readers visualize data results, and journalists are going to use it now more than ever.
Journalists should also think about outside sources for help. Each state has a data center, which can be a source of census data expertise. Find local universities and professors who can help dissect information for stories.
Another one of these outside sources is the Population Reference Bureau, an organization that analyzes complex population data and shares the findings in easy-to-understand formats. On top of that, the Population Reference Bureau helps journalists find headline stories in the numbers.
“I was here at PRB during the last census, and we definitely got a lot of calls during that time,” said PRB demographer Mark Mather. “Most people are just overwhelmed by the volume of information available.”
The PRB occasionally receives calls from small-town newspapers, but they primarily get calls from larger organizations such as The Associated Press, The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.
“All of those places have reporters whose job is to report on these population trends, so we’re helping them with their work,” Mather said.
Another skill to brush up on is the understanding of simple math.
Reporters can learn on the job when it comes to the census, Cohn said. Reporters will need to know concepts like statistical significance and the margin of error, as well as the difference in finding percent change versus percentage points. Percent change is the relative change between an old and new value, whereas percentage points make up the arithmetic difference between two percentages.
“It is something you can do even if you don’t think of yourself as a math whiz,” she said.
The American Community Survey
Journalists may want to fine-tune their census coverage before the important decennial mark. A great way to do this is to track the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, a more detailed form that is annually sent to a sampling of American households.
“You can use those surveys to start anticipating what kinds of questions you want to ask of the official census data,” South said.
The American Community Survey compiles detailed information about topics such as relationships, income, housing, education and fertility, and the first batch of numbers should be made available in September.
“It’s a rolling, more of a moving video for the U.S. population as opposed to this once per decade picture,” Mather said.