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Journalism 772: Computer-Assisted Reporting

Ira Chinoy

Philip Merrill College of Journalism

University of Maryland




Health and weather issues for U.Md. students:


·        University Health Center

Ø      Main phone:  301-314-8180

Ø      Urgent care: 301-314-8590

Ø      After Hours NurseLine: 301-314-9386


·        Weather emergencies


Student presentation Web sites:  Fall 2012

(with links to student presentation Web sites from past semesters)


Databases and materials for class exercises:

·        Links to the databases and materials

·        Instructions for downloading data for class exercises


Samples of data available on the Web

·        Sites with data on the web:  Here’s a sampling of sites that have data you can download for analysis using database management, spreadsheet, statistical or mapping software. This page also has examples of sites with data that have associated search engines for you to use on the Web.

·        Read about the distinction between that can be downloaded vs. data that you can search on the Web, with examples of each:


·        SearchSystems has a page of links to free searchable databases of public records on the Web.  Some of these sites also have databases that can be downloaded in their entirety.


Reporting projects published on the Internet:

·        A short sample of reporting projects appropriate for the reporting topics assignment.

·        A more extensive page of links to computer-assisted reporting projects.

·        Links to Capital News Service projects that featured computer-assisted reporting and data  analysis

·        Investigative Reporters and Editors guide to the latest investigative work


Other useful-journalism related sites and links:

·        “Ten Reasons You Should Hire a Journalist,” Jill Geisler, The Poynter Institute.

·         Trends in the Business, Technology and Practice of Journalism: Resources, Ira Chinoy


Acquiring databases

·        The 38 Excuses: This is a list, compiled at a Poynter Institute seminar in 1994, entitled  “The Top 38 Excuses Government Agencies Give for Not Being Able to Fulfill Your Data Request (And Suggestions on What You Should Do or Say.”

·        Text of the Maryland Public Information Act. NOTE: The text of the law has been changed to reflect the amendment dealing with electronic records –  which was passed in the spring of 2011 and took effect on Oct. 1, 2011.

·        The Maryland Public Information Act Manual, 12th ed., Office of the Maryland Attorney General. NOTE: This update (October 2011) reflects the change that took effect on Oct. 1, 2011, concerning rights to copies of electronic records.

·        Maryland Foundation for Open Government:

Ø      Home page

Ø      Guide to the Maryland Public Information Act

Ø      Guide to common records  

Ø      Maryland state agencies

·        The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has information about access to public records. This includes a guide to the Maryland Public Information Act (as part of the RCFP’s Open Government Guide: Access to Public Records and Meetings in the 50 States and D.C, 5th Ed. (2006). [Note that this guide was prepared in 2006. The provisions of the PIA are modified from time to time by the state legislature.  Be sure to check the law itself in addition to the guide.] There is also a guide, “How to Use the Federal FOI Act,” with information about the federal FOIA law.

·       File formats: Here is a primer on the file extensions -- such as *.mdb (for Access files) or *.xls (for Excel files) -- that you may encounter when requesting and receiving data. It was created by Jeff South at VCU, who also has a useful site – J-Files – on computer-assisted reporting.

·        News groups and press associations in several states have conducted audits of how well government agencies abide by open records laws.  Here are some examples:

1.      The Maryland-Delware-DC Press Association has Public Records Audits of government agencies in Maryland.  The association has links to these audits on its Freedom of Information page.

2.      The Associated Press and the South Carolina Press Association reported on their statewide “Freedom of Information Audit” in November 2005.  Local law enforcement agencies frequently violate the state’s public records law.

3.      The Kentucky Press Association, the Associated Press, and several news and student groups conducted a first-ever statewide audit of compliance with Kentucky’s public records law. (The whole package of stories is here.)

·        “A Guide to Computer Assisted Reporting: Tips and tales of investigative journalism,” by Pat Stith, a 1996 Pulitzer Prize winner from the The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).

·        Mining Public Records for Stories:  Resources and Ideas for Journalists – a page of links to stories using public records, laws related to public records, and ideas for finding public records.

· has links useful for finding data.  This site also has a guide to basic math and statistics.

·        Delays and resistance are, unfortunately, a matter of course in some agencies. Examples abound. Here are a few recent ones:

Ø      Broken Records: Three years later, FEMA still giving out excuses, not documents” – about the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s efforts to obtain FEMA records on the agency’s response to Hurricane Katrina – three years and counting. (by Mark Schleifstein,  Jan. 25, 2009)

Ø      Requests for public data lead to frustrating waits: City Council to look into process and how it can be streamlined” – from the Corpus Christie (Texas) Caller-Times: “The city took 15 days to comply with a Caller-Times request for a copy of its policy for fulfilling public information requests. The same request, submitted to the cities of San Antonio and Lubbock, was a same-day turnaround.” (by Sara Foley, January 11, 2009)

Resources for finding data sources in Maryland:

You may identify potential sources for government databases by looking at Maryland regulations and laws and at the Web sites for Maryland’s state agencies, counties, municipalities and other local public bodies.

Maryland government structure, laws and regulations:

Ø      Law Library of Congress:  Maryland government guide

Ø      Michie’s Legal Resources:  Maryland

Ø      Maryland Secretary of State, Division of State Documents:

v     Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR)

Maryland state, county and local government web sites:

Maryland State Government (includes an Agency Index).

Maryland StateStat

o       Prince George's County government home page and the Maryland state archives page with links for Prince George's County.

o       Montgomery County government home page and the Maryland state archives page with links for Montgomery County

o       Anne Arundel County government home page and the Maryland state archives page with links for Anne Arundel County

o       The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission

o       College Park

o       Rockville

o       Annapolis


Other resources for identifying data sources:

You may also get ideas to help you identify government databases from:

·        Reports of government auditors and inspectors general: Many government agencies have auditors or inspectors general whose job is to examine agency functions and report back on problems in need of correction or criminal prosecution. Yahoo maintains a page of links to inspectors general at federal agencies.

·        The Government Accountability Office has a searchable database with a wealth of information about problems uncovered by this investigative arm of Congress.

·        State and local government agencies may have similar investigative arms with reports that have useful leads for identifying databases.

·        You may get additional ideas about databases kept by public agencies from a variety of sources:

à    Press releases dealing with government activities (issued either by both the agencies themselves or watchdog groups, they may contain clues about collections of data and statistical information).

à    Paper forms (most databases start from those paper forms we seem to be filling out all the time for one thing or another).

à    Laws and government regulations (these may spell out what sorts of records must be kept and they may include schedules for how long they must be kept).

à    Minutes or annual reports of government agencies.

à    Government inventories of their own databases (as were developed in dealing with the Y2K computer bug).

·        The National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) and the NICAR Net Tour: You will find, among other things, links for finding databases maintained in the NICAR database library  and links for databases you can download from the Internet. (You may not use these databases for your data acquisition project, but you may be allowed to use one for your data analysis project after consulting with the instructor).

·        Investigative Reporters and Editors maintains an online resource center with a tool that lets you search their archives of news stories, tip sheets and Uplink articles. These will allow you to see how journalists have used various databases in their reporting.  Some of this helpful information on the IRE and NICAR Web site is available to the general public and some of it requires you to be an IRE member ($25 for students).


Tips for searching the Web and online research sites:


Dan Russell, Google’s “director of user happiness” (his actual formal title is (Uber Tech Lead, Google Search Quality & User Experience Research) has come to campus several times in recent years as a “Visiting Future-ist” with the UMD Future of Information Alliance and as a guest for a week at the College of Journalism to talk about and help us improve search literacy.  Here are some useful links for what he has to share:

·         In June 2012 he spoke at the IRE conference in Boston.  A good synopsis of his talk is here --   -- and his slides are here --

·         He maintains a blog called SearchReSearch here:


Maggie Saponaro ( is the UMD Libraries liaison to the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, providing library instruction and reference assistance.

She is an expert on general web searches, searches of databases in UMD’s ResearchPort (, and other library and reference research. 

She has created a guide to Library resources to support this class, available at:


Reporting on polls and surveys:

·        “20 Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results,” 3d ed., by Sheldon R. Gawiser, Ph.D. and G. Evans Witt: