Journalism 772 and 472: Computer-Assisted Reporting

Chinoy / Fall 2012




This project will give you some real-world experience in trying to get a useful database from a government agency – or trying to pry it out of the hands of its keepers, which may turn out to be a more appropriate description of the effort in some cases.   It is common, in fact, for government agencies in Maryland to initially resist legitimate requests both for databases of public records and the documentation for those databases.  But we have also had many successes, and students have gone on in subsequent semesters to produce terrific stories with those databases, including some that have won national recognition. Graduates of this program have also reported that their experiences in this assignment helped them later on in their reporting careers, not only in connection with requests for databases but in dealing with the challenges they have faced in their pursuit of public records of all sorts. If you make a good-faith effort in this assignment to get the database, including starting work on the project right away, you will not be penalized if you do not obtain it.  A good grade for this project is contingent 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.


The project includes the following essential elements and deadlines:

à Session 5 (Wednesday, Sept. 19):  The assignment will be introduced and discussed in detail.

à 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 me about your choice either during this session or by e-mail after class.  Some things to keep in mind at this point:

§  Bear in mind that the database you seek must be maintained by a government agency in Maryland that operates at the local, county or state level.  The database must contain information that would be considered public record under the terms of the Maryland Public Information Act.

§  Databases maintained by federal agencies or agencies in other states are not appropriate for this assignment. 

§  Databases that are readily available for downloading from the Internet are also not acceptable for this assignment.  The process of seeking the database documentation – and the database if we get that far – will require you to have contact with government officials who serve as its gatekeepers.

§  The database you are seeking must be maintained as a database in electronic form, and you must seek this database in electronic form (that is, as a data file – such as an Access file or in some other database format – rather than as a printout).  Hence, once you get to the next step of this assignment, it will be important to learn quickly whether or not the database you have in mind is one that actually exists.  If there is no database, you will need to consult with me about making another choice of a database to pursue for this assignment.

  • The database you seek should also be of a size and nature appropriate for a student reporter.  The entire case management database for the Montgomery County court system, for example, is gargantuan and complex, but something like a database of restaurant inspections would be more manageable.


à Session 13 (Monday, Oct. 22):  Memo 2 (one page) is due reporting on your initial efforts to get information about the database and its place in government operations.  You should also report on your initial efforts to contact the keepers of the database.

§  You will maintain a written log of your contacts.  This is an essential and vitally important part of this project. This log, which you will submit as part of your graded work on this assignment along with your final report, should include the following for each occasion that you reach or even attempt to reach someone for this project:  the person’s full name; his or her job title; the agency for which he or she works; the location of that agency; at least enough contact information so that you can find this person again later or so that someone else reading the log could find this person again (phone number, e-mail address or both); the date and time; and a brief summary of what transpired.  Some of the people you deal with – say, the receptionists or assistants who first answer the phone – may not want to give you their names, but you can always try telling them that you like to keep a record of the people with whom you speak. Your thoroughness may be appreciated.  An inadequate log – especially one that does not provide enough information for someone reading the log to know precisely whom you contacted, how you contacted them, and when you contacted them – may prevent you from getting a passing grade for this assignment.

  • You will need to learn as much as you can about what we might call the “context” for the database you are seeking.  The database exists inside a governmental system that is typically responsible for regulating, monitoring or facilitating certain activities. Examples would include agencies that inspect restaurants for health violations, investigate consumer complaints, or pay their own employees’ salaries – and that capture information about these tasks in databases. So one of the important features of this assignment is to learn about how the database you are seeking fits into that system. What records does the agency maintain and in what form? Can you confirm that there are records maintained in a database? (And if there is no database, as noted above, we will need to have a discussion and set off in another direction). How are those records used? 
  • You will need to find out who can inform you about the database you are seeking. Who maintains it?  Who has the authority to release it? 
  • You will need to find out if there is documentation for the database – such items as the record layout and code sheets, details of the file type and size, copies of the paper forms used to generate the data, and paper copies of sample records.
  • You will need to check the Maryland Public Information Act to determine whether part or all of the database you are seeking is public record. You also need to find out whether there is some specific law relating to the records you are seeking that trumps the Public Information Act and restricts release of those records.
  • You will need to understand how getting this database would help you as a reporter, either as the basis of a story or as a newsroom resource. Your research might include finding out whether other reporters have used this particular database in Maryland or databases like it in other states. You should check Lexis-Nexis and look at resources on the IRE and NICAR Web sites.  You may wish to contact someone who has experience using the data.
  • In short, there are important steps that come before requesting the database.  These steps can prove challenging – including being efficient in reaching the appropriate officials and being effective in communicating with them.  Taking shortcuts can actually cost you more time in the end.
  • When you feel you are ready to request the database, you will be trying to convince the keepers of the data to give it to you in the form you want.  IMPORTANT NOTE:  See the separate information sheet on the class Web site with pointers and guidelines for making written requests for databases.
  • THIS IS IMPORTANT:  Before you make a request for the database, you need to get my approval for the way that you will make this request.  This is a prior approval is a critical aspect of the assignment.  If you make the request in a PIA letter, I need to see that letter in advance.  If you plan to make the request by e-mail, over the phone, or in person, I need to see the language you plan to use to make that request.  Bring a copy of your letter or proposed request language (if to be done by e-mail, phone or in person) to class for me to see and discuss with you before you make the request. Failure to heed this requirement will affect your grade for the assignment.
  • When you do request the database, you will ask for a waiver of fees in any written request for the database. You will need to negotiate over this issue if the agency proposes to charge you for the data, and we will talk in class about how to do that. You are not required or expected to pay for this database yourself. Also note that if the agency agrees to provide the database and quotes a price, you should not commit to buying it. At that point, contact me, and I will determine whether the price and the value of the data make it worth obtaining for the College of Journalism.

à 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.

à Sessions 23, 24 & 25 (Monday, Nov. 26; Wednesday, Nov. 28; Monday, Dec. 3): You will make a verbal presentation to the class (8-10 minutes) on your project.  You will also submit a 1,000-word (double-spaced) written project report, together with relevant documentation and a log of contacts with agency officials and employees.  During the presentations, we will discuss your experiences and what steps might help to pry the data from reluctant gatekeepers:

  • Your presentation should include the following elements:
    • About the database:  Describe the database you sought, how and why it is maintained by the agency, how it has been used in other reporting (if you know), and why it would be of value to a reporter.
    • About the law: How did you determine that these are public records? Were they of the sort that contained both public and nonpublic information?
    • About the negotiation: Tell us about your contacts with the agency. Did officials put up barriers to access or accommodate you? Did they object to releasing the data in electronic form? What was the outcome?
    • Looking ahead: If you have not obtained the data, what steps would you or someone else need to take to perfect the request?
    • Lessons learned: What did you learn from this project that you might be able to apply to future reporting efforts and that would be useful for other students to know?  Did you learn anything about yourself? Your insights here are an important feature of the assignment.
  • Your written report should include the points covered in your oral presentation. You should also append the following:
    • A detailed log with each contact you made, including: the date and time; the full name, title and agency of the person with whom you spoke or corresponded; the relevant phone number, mailing address or e-mail address; and a note about what happened. Include even dates of unsuccessful attempts to reach agency officials.
    • Copies of any written correspondence with the agency.
    • Any database documentation you obtained as part of the project, such as record layouts, code sheets and data entry forms.
    • Any reports you obtained that were issued by the agency based on the data, such as annual reports, press releases or evidence the agency provided to another government body.
    • An electronic copy of the database, if you were able to obtain it, and a printout of a sample of the data.
    • Copies of the three project memos you submitted (showing my comments).

à After Session 27:  Even though the assignment is officially over, it is common for students who have not obtained the database they are seeking to continue working toward that goal, especially if they have in mind to use the database to prepare a news story in the next semester.  Continued work on this project that is documented by the final class session with a written addendum to their data acquisition project report, including copies of related correspondence and documents, may be considered for extra credit toward a student’s grade on this assignment.



How you should represent yourself:  During this assignment you will represent yourself as a student journalist.  That is, the people with whom you are dealing will need to understand that while you are making this request in connection with a journalism course, you hope to eventually use the database to prepare a news story for publication, broadcast or as online news. You will not be preparing a news story for this course, but students who do obtain a database during this assignment often go on to use it in a subsequent semester while reporting a story for general circulation. If you end up writing a letter requesting the database, it must include this language:


“I am a student at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and I am making this request on behalf of the Capital News Service, a news wire that is operated by the college and serves broadcast and print clients across the state of Maryland and in Washington, D.C. The records disclosed pursuant to this request will be used in the preparation of news stories for dissemination to the public.”


This language serves as a basis, too, for requesting a waiver of fees.  And after doing all the work to get the database, it makes sense that you would want to take advantage of that work by using it in a story.  Sometimes, a student who succeeds in getting a database decides not to use it for reporting and makes it available to another student who does want to use it.  Therefore, you may not make representations to the government officials and employees with whom you are dealing that you will not publish or broadcast the information they provide.  If you do not identify yourself as a student journalist – and if you leave the officials you contact with the impression that you only want this information for a course but will not use it in any other way – that would be a violation of the guidelines for this assignment.  We will talk more about this issue in class.  If there is any confusion about this point, contact me or bring it up in one of our class discussions.


Your grade for the project will be based on the following criteria:

o   Meeting the deadline.

o   Your understanding of the how and why the database is maintained and used by the agency that has it.

o   Your understanding and explanation of the potential journalistic uses of the data.

o   Your understanding of what you were or were not entitled to get under the public records law and the degree to which you pushed for what the law allowed you to get.

o   The extent to which you worked to gather necessary information about the database, including forms, record layouts, code sheets, and examples of agency use of the data.

o   Whether you got to work on this project right away and worked on it consistently.

o   Whether you followed the guidelines for making data requests, for representing yourself as a student journalist and for all other aspects of the assignment.

o   Whether you took advantage of the approaches to this assignment that we discussed in class or that I discussed with you individually.

o   The clarity and organization of your oral presentation.

o   The quality of your written report. It must be clear, engaging and professional, and it must employ AP Style.

o   The quality, thoroughness and accuracy of your log.