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Journalism 772: Computer-Assisted Reporting

Fall 2012

Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland

 

Dan Keating    

Ira Chinoy

Mon. & Weds., 10-11:50 a.m.

dtkeats@gmail.com     

ichinoy@umd.edu

Knight Hall, Room 2107

 

301-405-8208            

http://jclass.umd.edu/cars/772/

 

Course Description and Goals:  This is a course in the basic elements of computer-assisted reporting. You will learn how computer spreadsheet and database programs can be used to find details, leads and stories in collections of electronic records. With the proper training and inclination, journalists who are comfortable with these tools can produce stories that would be virtually impossible to do otherwise. Though this approach to reporting has roots that stretch back decades, only in recent years has it moved beyond being an exotic curiosity. As the tools have become more affordable and accessible, success stories have proliferated, prompting greater demand for training and for reporters who can do this work.

 

Six elements will be woven together during the semester:

  • You will learn how to use spreadsheet and database-management software to “interview” data stored in electronic form.
  • You will learn how to obtain electronic records from government agencies and other sources, and you will undertake a data acquisition project.
  • You will learn how to locate and download useful databases available on the Internet.
  • You will learn basic approaches to finding patterns, promising leads and stories in a database, and you will apply this knowledge in a data analysis project.
  • You will be exposed to the wider context of computer-assisted reporting, including its history, how it fits into the world of journalism, how it has been used in particular stories and projects, and the role that innovative thinking plays in the process. You will see how some specialized tools – including mapping and polling – are used. You will get an appreciation for the role that visual display of data can play in both analysis and the packaging of stories.
  • You will understand how, despite advances in computer technology, the fundamentals of basic reporting still apply. These include a devotion to accuracy, clarity, fairness, solid news value and, ultimately, good storytelling.

 

Once this course is over, the data skills may slip away if you do not use them. But even if that happens, I expect you to carry two things with you. One is an understanding of the potential for computer-assisted reporting in your work. The other is a mindset. I hope you will, as a matter of habit, ask the people you encounter in your reporting not just what they know, but how they know it, and ask to see the evidence.


Prerequisites: 

Ø  Graduate students in journalism: Successful completion or current enrollment in JOUR 501, or equivalent professional experience.

Ø  Graduate students in other programs and special students: Written permission or professional reporting experience.

 

You will need to have a basic knowledge of how to save computer files, copy them to another location, find them again and use a browser to get around on the Internet.

 

Required Text:

Ø  The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook: A Guide to Documents, Databases and Techniques, 5th edition, by Brant Houston and Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008).  ISBN-13: 978-0-312-44265-1 or 978-0-3-1258997-4. This edition is sold at the University of Maryland Book Center and the Maryland Book Exchange.  A copy is also on course reserve at McKeldin Library. Ask for it by this call number:  XPB5229.B1.

 

Handouts and Web pages:

Ø  There will be frequent handouts in class, and there will be materials posted on the class website that you will be asked to print out and bring to class.  These include assignments, tip sheets, exercises, answer keys and readings.  You will need a three-ring binder to keep these items organized so you can refer to them while working on assignments in class or during class discussions.

 

Readings on the Internet:

Ø  The Maryland Public Information Act, available at: http://www.oag.state.md.us/Opengov/Appendix_C.pdf. You will also receive a paper copy in class. An amendment dealing with electronic records – http://mlis.state.md.us/2011rs/bills/sb/sb0740t.pdf – was passed in the spring of 2011 and took effect on Oct. 1, 2011.

Ø  The Maryland Public Information Act Manual, 12th ed., Office of the Maryland Attorney General, available at http://www.oag.state.md.us/Opengov/pia.htm

Ø  The guide to Maryland’s Public Information Act in Open Government Guide: Access to Public Records and Meetings in the 50 States and D.C, 5th Ed. (2006), published by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; available at http://www.rcfp.org/open-government-guide.

 

Other Resources

Ø  The resources page for this course has a variety of links useful to your wider exploration of computer-assisted reporting. These include stories, databases, relevant laws and sites to help you brainstorm ideas for using what you will learn in this course.

Ø  You are encouraged (but not required) to join Investigative Reporters and Editors ($25 for students). Benefits include access to tip sheets and training materials for computer-assisted reporting, a subscription to The IRE Journal, and access to the IRE archives.  You will also be able to search past issues of Uplink, a bimonthly publication of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.  Uplink provides descriptions of computer-assisted reporting projects and offers tips and leads for finding data. You can get more information at http://www.ire.org/ .


Assignments:

1). Class participation: Your level of class participation will count for 20 percent of your course grade and will come from the following elements:

 

(a). Completion of in-class and take-home assignments. These will reinforce the learning we do in class and help identify issues requiring more attention.

 

(b). Class discussion: You are expected to take an active part in discussions – and, by extension, to take responsibility for your own learning.  If you are absent or late to class, you will be missing the opportunity to participate, and this will be reflected in your grade.

 

(c). The reporting topics assignment (story critique, Web resources and Investigative Reporter’s Handbook chapter outline):  Each student will do a handout to be posted on ELMS before the class when it is due (with a two paper copies for the instructor) and a presentation organized around the theme of a chapter or part of a chapter from The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook.  This assignment is designed to get you into the habit of looking for useful information sources, public records and data in the course of your reporting and to help you become a close reader of in-depth reporting projects that use these resources.  Details of this assignment are posted on the class website.  Read them carefully well ahead of the due date for this assignment.

 

      Your handout will include an outline of a chapter from The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook, information about several websites related to the theme of the chapter, and a synopsis of a news story connected to that theme (see the full instructions for more detail). You should build your class presentation around this news story and show us one or two websites in detail, making connections along the way to a few key concepts from the handbook chapter (about which you will provide more detail in your handout).

 

You will get 10 to 15 minutes for your presentation.  The assignment will be introduced in Session 4 (Wednesday, Sept. 12), and students will be assigned their chapters and presentation dates.  Presentations will begin (one or two per session) in Session 7 (Monday, Oct. 1).

 

At least 24 hours before your presentation, you must send the instructor an e-mail with the name of each website you will show us and the URL for each of these websites, along with the URL of the story you have chosen and a complete citation for the story.  Check the class website to see the required format for submitting these links so that I can be paste them into the Web page we will use for your presentation.

 

2). In-class exam on databases (Access). This open-book test in Session 11 (Monday, Oct. 15) will count for 20 percent of your course grade.

 

3). In-class exam on spreadsheets (Excel). This open-book test in Session 18 (Wednesday, Nov. 7) will count for 20 percent of your course grade.

 

4). Data acquisition project:  This will count for 25 percent of your course grade.  You must identify a database maintained by a local or state government agency in Maryland, get information about the database, attempt to obtain it, and then report back on your efforts.  Details of this assignment and supplemental materials are posted on the class website.  The steps in this assignment are as follows:

o   Session 5 (Wednesday, Sept. 19):  The assignment will be introduced and discussed, and you will get a set of detailed guidelines.

o   Session 8 (Wednesday, Oct. 3):  Memo 1 (one page) is due indicating your main choice for a database to pursue and your reasons for choosing it; you must also indicate two alternates. You will hear back from the instructor by the next session either confirming your choice or suggesting you pursue an alternate.

o   Session 13 (Monday, Oct. 22):  Memo 2 (one page) is due reporting on your initial attempts to learn about the database and to identify and contact the keeper of the data.

o   Tuesday, Nov. 13, noon:  Memo 3 (one page) is due by email as an attached Word document reporting on the status of your project (include “Memo 3” and your name in the email’s subject line). In most cases, you need to have confirmed that there is a database and contacted its keepers well before this date.

o   Sessions 23, 24 & 25 (Monday, Nov. 26; Wednesday, Nov. 28; Monday, Dec. 3):  Students will make an oral presentation to the class (8-10 minutes) on their project and submit a 1,000-word (double-spaced) written project report, together with supporting documentation and a log of contacts with agency officials and employees.   During the presentations, we will discuss your experiences and what steps might be taken to obtain data from reluctant gatekeepers.

 

A good grade for this project is contingent not on getting the database but on a solid, steady, intelligent effort that takes advantage of your journalistic skills, your familiarity with the issues in data acquisition, your knowledge of the law and the approaches we discuss in class.

 

5). Data analysis project: This will count for 15 percent of your course grade, with extra credit given for exceptional work. In this assignment, you will analyze a database to search for newsworthy patterns, and you will prepare a story memo outlining a reporting project that could be launched based on your findings. You will be provided with a database to analyze for this project, or you may ask for permission from your instructor to analyze a database you obtain through your data acquisition project.  Further information about this assignment is posted on the class website. The steps in this assignment are as follows:

Ø  Session 17 (Monday, Nov. 5):  The assignment will be introduced.

Ø  Session 26 (Wednesday, Dec. 5):  Memo 1 (one page) is due. It should include the following: the question or questions you hope to answer with the database; why this would be of interest to an audience of readers, viewers or listeners (depending on the medium); what you have discovered in your initial analysis; and what you plan to do to complete the assignment.  You should attach screen captures of two or three key queries that you are using in your analysis.

Ø  Session 27 (Monday, Dec. 10):  Students will be asked to make a very brief informal oral presentation on their projects.

Ø  DUE DATE: Final written data analysis project reports are due on Wednesday, Dec. 12 in Room 2107 – at 10 a.m.

·        The final project report is a story memo of about 1,000 to 1,200 words (double-spaced), along with supporting materials (such as key clips), a log of your discovery process, and any relevant documentation (in the case of data you did not get from the instructor).  This story memo should be written as if you were trying to get the attention of a very busy editor and convince that editor to give you the opportunity to pursue a story you believe is suggested by your analysis.  The memo should include what you found to be newsworthy when you analyzed the data, how the data could be used in a story, and what additional steps would be needed to complete the reporting for that story. NOTE: Print out your final project reports before coming to class (i.e. do not expect to be able to use the printer in the classroom to print your final report).

·        In addition to a paper copy of the story memo and supplementary items, each student will bring on Wednesday, Dec. 12, an electronic copy of the story memo (without supplementary materials) to be uploaded into a College of Journalism “assessments” portfolio on the college website.  More information about this requirement is provided in a separate information sheet posted on the class website.  You must complete this step in order to get a grade for this course.

·        Students who wish to submit their final work before Dec. 12 may make arrangements with the instructor in advance to turn in a paper copy of their story memo and supplementary items and to upload their story memo to the online assessments portfolio.

 

There will be no final exam.

 

Grading:  The following criteria will be used in assessing graded assignments:

1.      Submission of work by the stated deadline.

2.      Accuracy.

3.      Mastery of the concepts and skills taught in the course.

4.      The degree of skill and critical thinking you apply to the assignment.

5.      News judgment.

6.      The quality and organization of your writing or presentation.

7.      Effort.

 

Your work should follow professional standards, including Associated Press style for grammar, punctuation, spelling, sentence construction and word usage.  A brief tip sheet with reminders about AP Style and some guidelines for writing is posted on the class website.

 

Attendance and Deadlines:

Because much of the learning in this course will be hands-on, it is important that you attend every class and show up on time. To do otherwise will affect the class participation portion of your grade. Students who display a habit of missing class or coming late to class will be asked to withdraw from the course unless a satisfactory explanation is provided to the instructor. If you expect to miss a class because of a religious holiday, please notify the instructor at the end of the first class. If you are ill and will miss class, let the instructor know before that class, if possible. Unless you have the instructor’s approval in advance, course work cannot be made up if you do not submit it on time.

 

Protecting your work:

If you are working on your data analysis project outside the classroom, make regular backups of your work. Keep at least one copy on a portable medium or on a separate computer or network. This is good practice and will keep you from getting an F for missed work if your computer crashes.

 

Participation and demeanor

Though you will work hard in this class, I hope it will be lively and enjoyable for all of us. The give and take of classroom discussion is a great opportunity for all of us to learn.

 

The only program you should run on your computer during class is the one we are using at that time for class work.  If you have been on the Web or checking e-mail at your seat before class starts, you must shut these programs down by the starting time for the class. Using cell phones and portable devices to send or receive messages or browse the Web during class sessions is prohibited. If your demeanor interrupts or interferes with the class, your participation grade will suffer. You may also be asked to leave class for the day, and you may receive an F on any of the day’s assignments.

 

Food and drink in the lab:  The College of Journalism does not permit food or beverages in the lab.

 

Using the printer in the lab:  Once class starts, you are expected to have your written assignments printed out and available to turn in if they are due on paper.  Unless you have permission from the instructor, you may not use the printer in the lab once the class period has started. 

 

Academic Integrity:  

The completed assignments, projects and exams you submit should be based on work you do alone, not in collaboration with others, unless I instruct you otherwise. This is to ensure that you have learned the material. It does not prohibit students from helping each other learn.  Just make sure that when it comes to assignments, what you turn in is your own work.  Students may not consult with each other during midterm exams, and students who have taken a midterm exam in one section may not discuss it with students in the other section before both sections have completed that exam.

 

Along with certain rights, students have the responsibility to behave honorably in an academic environment. Academic dishonesty, including cheating, fabrication, facilitating academic dishonesty, and plagiarism, will not be tolerated. Any abridgement of academic integrity standards will be referred directly to the dean and the university's Office of Judicial Affairs. Confirmation of such incidents will result in earning an “XF” grade for the course and may result in more severe consequences, such as expulsion. Students who are uncertain as to what constitutes academic dishonesty should consult the university’s Code of Academic Integrity at http://www.president.umd.edu/policies/iii100a.html and a discussion of the issues at http://osc.umd.edu/OSC/StudentsInfo.aspx.

 

All students will be required to sign an academic integrity pledge at the beginning of the semester covering all assignments in the course.

 

Students with Disabilities: Students with disabilities requiring special accommodation during the semester should make an appointment to meet with the instructor as soon as possible.

 

Computer Lab Availability:  If you wish to work on data for class assignments when you are not in the classroom and follow along with the course tip sheets, you will need a computer equipped with the 2010 versions of Microsoft Access and Excel. These are available in Knight Hall and elsewhere on campus. The computer labs across campus are listed here, along with the software they have installed: http://www.oit.umd.edu/wheretogo/

 

Course evaluations: The university administration asks students to complete course evaluations through the CourseEvalUM website at http://www.courseevalum.umd.edu/. This system is anonymous and will be open for your input toward the end of the semester.  The evaluations are a useful element in curriculum development.

 

Class schedule:

 

In addition to the readings and assignments noted below, other assignments may be given out in class.  The instructor may modify this schedule during the semester to better meet the needs of the class.  Some of the readings on the CAR class website require the special login for this course.  You will be given those login instructions at the first class session.  The data for the Access and Excel exercises, tip sheets and most of the answer keys are also on the class website, and you will get instructions on how to download them.

 

Session 1 (Wednesday, Aug. 29):  Introduction to the course.

 

Assignments to complete for next class: 

Ø  Read this syllabus.

Ø  Familiarize yourself with the class website.

Ø  On the class website:  Print out and complete the student background sheet if you did not do so in class.

 

Monday, Sept. 3 – Labor Day – No class

 

Session 2 (Wednesday, Sept. 5):  Introduction to “interviewing” data: filtering records.

 

Required reading for next class: 

Ø  On the class website:  Two computer-assisted reporting projects (linked on the class site) and selections from your textbook, The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook (Preface and Chapters 1-5); includes a writing assignment.

Ø  On the class website:  Read the tip sheet on writing and AP Style.

 

Additional assignment to complete for next class:

Ø  Access exercise 1.

 

Session 3 (Monday, Sept. 10):  Discussion of the role of computer-assisted reporting in the newsroom and structure of computer-assisted reporting projects.

 

Required reading for next class: 

Ø  On the class website:  Reporting topics assignment.

 

Session 4 (Wednesday, Sept. 12):  Review of filtering records; grouping; database structure issues; introduction of the reporting topics assignment.

 

Required reading for next class:

Ø  On the Web:  Maryland Public Information Act (PIA).

Ø  On the Web:  PIA Amendment that took effect Oct. 1, 2011.

Ø  On the Web:  Chapter 1, Attorney General’s Public Information Act Manual.

Ø  On the Web:  Chapter 2, Attorney General’s Public Information Act Manual.

Ø  On the Web:  Chapter 4, Attorney General’s Public Information Act Manual.

Ø  On the Web:  Chapter 6, Attorney General’s Public Information Act Manual.

Ø  On the Web:  Chapter 7, Attorney General’s Public Information Act Manual.

Ø  On the Web:  “Why Public Records Are Important to the Public,” pp. 29-31, in “It’s Your Right to Know”

 

Monday, Sept. 17 – NO CLASS (religious holiday)

 

Session 5 (Wednesday, Sept. 19): Public records; assignment of the data acquisition project.

 

Required reading for next class: 

Ø  On the class website:  Data acquisition project materials.

Assignment to complete for next class:

Ø  Access exercise 2.

 

Session 6 (Monday, Sept. 24): Grouping review; cross-tabs and using “where” in queries; continued discussion of data acquisition project.

 

Required reading for next class: 

Ø  On the class website:  Computer-assisted reporting project.

Ø  On the Web at Poynter.org: “The 38 Excuses…”

 

Wednesday, Sept. 26 – NO CLASS (religious holiday)

 

Session 7 (Monday, Oct. 1):  Discussion of the data acquisition process; reporting topics presentations begin.

 

Assignments to complete for next class:

Ø  Access exercise 3

Ø  Memo 1 for the data acquisition project

 

Session 8 (Wednesday, Oct. 3): Cross-tab and “where” review; linking tables; other database functions.

 

Assignment to complete for next class:

Ø  Access exercises 4.

 

Session 9 (Monday, Oct. 8): Database review exercises; discussion of issues in the data acquisition project.

 

Assignment to complete for next class:

Ø  Access exercises 5 and 6

 

Session 10 (Wednesday, Oct. 10): Database review; continued discussion of issues in the data acquisition project.

 

Session 11 (Monday, Oct. 15): Database exam in class.

 

Session 12 (Wednesday, Oct. 17): Navigating spreadsheets, sorting, and formulas.

 

Assignments to complete for next class:

Ø  Excel exercise 1

Ø  Memo 2 for the data acquisition project.

 

Session 13 (Monday, Oct. 22): Rates, percents, change, rank, share of total, reference.

 

Assignment to complete for next class:

Ø  Excel exercises 2 and 3.

 

Session 14 (Wednesday, Oct. 24): Exercise – finding the story.

 

Assignment to complete for next class:

Ø  Excel exercise 4.

 

Session 15 (Monday, Oct. 29): Finding the story (continued); discussion of issues in the data acquisition project.

 

Session 16 (Wednesday, Oct. 31): Pivot tables; other spreadsheet functions; Excel review exercises.

 

Assignments to complete for next class:

Ø  Access exercise 4A.

Ø  Access exercise 5

 

Required reading for next class: 

Ø  On the class website:  Data analysis project assignment [Read the item labeled Assignment Dates and Requirements.]

 

Session 17 (Monday, Nov. 5): Spreadsheet review; introduction of data analysis assignment.

 

Session 18 (Wednesday, Nov. 7): Spreadsheet exam in class.

 

 

Session 19 (Monday, Nov. 12): To be announced.

 

Assignment to complete by noon on Tuesday, Nov. 13, and submit by email:

Ø  Memo 3 for the data acquisition project.

 

Session 20 (Wednesday, Nov, 14): To be announced.

 

 

Required reading for the next class:

Ø  On the class website:  Materials for discussion of data analysis; includes a writing assignment. 

 

Session 21 (Monday, Nov. 19): Approaches to data analysis; lab work on data analysis project; discussion of final data acquisition presentations and reports.

 

 

Session 22 (Wednesday, Nov. 21):  Lab work on data analysis project; continued discussion of final data acquisition presentations and reports.

 

Thanksgiving, Thursday, Nov. 22

 

Session 23 (Monday, Nov. 26): Presentations of data acquisition projects begin – oral reports and submission of written reports for presenters.

 

Session 24 (Wednesday, Nov. 28): Presentations of data acquisition projects continue – oral reports and submission of written reports for presenters.

 

Session 25 (Monday, Dec. 3): Presentations of data acquisition projects conclude – oral reports and submission of written reports for presenters; discussion of the group’s experiences in the data acquisition project.

 

Assignment to complete for the next class:

Ø  Memo 1 for the data analysis project.

 

Session 26 (Wednesday, Dec. 5):  Visual display of data; lab work on data analysis project.

 

Optional reading for next class:

Ø  On the Web: “20 Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results,” 3d ed., by Sheldon R. Gawiser and G. Evans Witt.

 

Session 27 (Monday, Dec. 10):  Polling and surveys; lab work on data analysis project; students will be asked to make very brief informal presentations on their projects.

 

FINAL PROJECT DUE DATE: Final written data analysis project reports are due on Wednesday, Dec. 12 in Room 2107 at 10 a.m. In addition to a paper copy of the story memo and supplementary items, each student will bring an electronic copy of the story memo (without supplementary materials) to be uploaded into a College of Journalism “assessments” portfolio on the college website.  You must complete this step in order to get a grade for this course.  NOTE: Print out your final project reports before coming to class (i.e. do not expect to be able to use the printer in the classroom to print your final report)

 

Students who wish to submit their final work before 10 a.m. on Dec. 10 may make arrangements with the instructor in advance to submit their story memo and supplementary items and to upload their story memo to the online assessments portfolio.