Journalism 772 and 472: Computer-Assisted Reporting

Fall 2012

Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland


Reporting Topics Assignment:

Story critique, Web resources and

Investigative Reporter’s Handbook chapter outline


Each student will do a handout and class presentation organized around the theme of a chapter or part of a chapter from The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook (5th ed.).  This assignment is designed to get you into the habit of looking for documentation 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. 


The assignment includes these elements:

a).  A handout - this should be posted to ELMS before your presentation, and bring a paper copy for the instructor. It must include the following elements:


1.     A synopsis (two to three pages) of a in-depth news story published on the Internet that relates to the subject of the chapter or the part of a chapter you were assigned from the Investigative Reporter’s Handbook (5th ed.), including a complete citation, the Web address of the project, a summary of the content of the piece, an explanation of how data and documents were used in the story, a discussion of the way the story was presented on the Web, your response to the story (including what you learned from the reporting methods and story construction that might be of use to you in your own reporting), and whatever you can learn about the impact of the story.  Most students have chosen to contact the reporter or reporters who produced this story to learn more about how it was done, and you are encouraged to do so.  It is preferable that the story you choose made use of computer-assisted reporting in some way.  It can be a story that originally appeared in a print, broadcast or online medium. You will find links to examples at The IRE Web site has a collection of links to CAR projects at:


2.     An outline of the highlights of the chapter you were assigned (two to three pages). You may outline this in standard form, or you may choose to reorganize and highlight the material in a way that reflects what you have taken away from the chapter. You do need to cover, in some way, the major ideas presented in this chapter.


3.     The names and URL’s of at least five Web sites, along with several sentences for each one about why you chose it, as follows:


o   At least three Web sites useful to a reporter covering the subjects discussed in the chapter.


o   At least one Web site with a searchable database (that is with a search interface on the Web) that is relevant to the story or handbook chapter.



o   At least one Web site with a database that can be downloaded in its entirety from the Web and explored with a tool such as Excel or Access. Databases that can be purchased from NICAR do not count for this part of the assignment. For this assignment, you do not need to actually download and analyze this database – just show us where it is and give us an idea of what it offers.


A NOTE ABOUT DATA ON THE WEB:  See this page for a few examples of searchable vs. downloadable databases on the Web:


b). An oral presentation that includes the following elements:


1.     A discussion of the story you chose to profile. This will be the heart of your presentation to the class. Tell us what was reported and how it was reported. Explain the way key data and documents were used in the project.  Describe any notable storytelling techniques and show us any significant features of the way the story is presented on the Web. If you have learned about follow-up or community reaction to the story or series, tell us about that.  And include anything else that you believe would be of value to the class, including what you may have learned from the reporter or reporters if you chose to contact them.


2.     As you analyze the story, you will encounter some of the themes raised in the handbook chapter, and you should refer to those as you go along. This should not be a recitation of your outline. The class will have that to read on their own. You are encouraged, however, to tell us two or three things that you have taken away from the chapter that you think will be interesting and useful to your classmates. Think both in terms of the big picture and some telling details.  You will not have much time for this element of your presentation, so the challenge is to make this tight and engaging.


3.     Integrate your presentation of the story and/or chapter themes with the features of one or two of the Web sites you have listed in your handout.  One effective way to do this is to show how a Web site can be used to answer a particular reporting question (we will talk more about this in class) – that is, how you can drill down through a Web site to get answers about a particular case or other useful information. Give the class a chance to digest what you are showing us. And avoid racing through all of your Web sites. We will have your handout to read about all of them.


Additional details about this project:


a)   In Session 4 (Wednesday, Sept. 12), you will be asked to pick a chapter from The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook.  Choose from chapters 8 through 21 (several of which may be divided up between two students, depending on the size of the class). Have one or two alternates in mind.  Some students have had a great experience by picking a chapter that doesn’t interest them – and then being surprised to find how rich the material can be.


b)   A schedule of presentations will be made during that class and posted at The presentations will start (one or two per session) in Session 7 (Monday, Oct. 1).


c)   At least 24 hours before your presentation, you must send me an e-mail with the name of each Web site you use (that is, the five or more from your handout) and the URL for each of these Web sites, along with the URL of the story you have chosen and a brief citation for the story (the headline, the publication, the location of the publication if not obvious from its name, the byline, and the date or dates).   Submit your links in the format you see on the class Web page we will use for these presentations: .  I will post your links there for you to use during your presentation.


d)   You will get 10 to 15 minutes for this presentation, so you will have to budget your time carefully and rehearse beforehand. Presentations that do a good job of integrating the various elements – story, Web, and key themes from the chapter – are likely to be the most engaging.