772 and 472: Computer-Assisted Reporting
We have talked in
class about the process of identifying story ideas and leads in databases. You
will now have a chance to try this on your own by analyzing a database on your
own. 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. After you have begun work on
this assignment, you will turn in a brief status memo on your efforts.
At the end of the semester, you will turn in a story memo of 1,000 to 1,200 words (about five pages, double-spaced). This story
memo should pitch a story idea derived primarily from your analysis of the
database, including a discussion of what you found that was newsworthy when you
analyzed the data, how the data could be used to develop the story, and
what additional steps would be needed to complete the reporting of this story. The
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.
Ø Session 17 (Monday, Nov. 5): The assignment will be introduced. It is
essential before you start analyzing the data that you read the database documentation.
Ø Session 26 (Wednesday, Dec. 5):
A status memo (one page) is due
informing me of 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 presentation about their projects.
Ø Wednesday, Dec. 12, Room 2107 – at 10 a.m.:The final project report is
due. This is a story memo of 1,000 to 1,200 words (double-spaced), along with supporting materials (such as key
clips), a log of your discovery process,
screen captures of key queries (see
details below) and any relevant documentation
(in the case of data you did not get from your 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. In addition to turning in paper copies of your
story memo and supplementary items (discovery log, relevant clips, etc.), you
will be required to bring an electronic
copy of your story memo to class.
This will be uploaded into a College of Journalism “assessments” portfolio on
the college Web site. More
information about this requirement is provided in a separate information sheet
posted on the class Web site.
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.
The final story
memo should include the following:
strong statement at the top:
Write this as if I am your editor and you are competing for my
attention with reporters pitching other story ideas. That is, don’t start by saying, “I sat
down and launched Access and looked at the database and sorted it 10
different ways…” Tell me right up front what you found that was
interesting or what you found that suggests a dynamite story. Tell me how your most newsworthy
findings relate to what you found in your research about prior uses of
similar data for stories elsewhere. Do not pitch your findings for more
than they are worth, however, or make assertions not supported by your
and cons of the data: Discuss
both the strengths and limitations of the data.
summary of the results of your analysis: Describe results that are germane to the
main thrust of the story you are pitching and, if appropriate, relevant
results that suggest other interesting avenues to explore. You may want to include graphics, tables
or charts that will make it easier for me to grasp what you are trying to
communicate. Indicate whether your findings are new or whether they
present a local angle for similar findings reported elsewhere.
you would verify your findings: Identify the specific steps would you
take and the types of information you would use to determine whether the
results of your analysis are accurate and significant. If your analysis suggests fault or
issues of accountability on the part of public or private figures,
indicate whom you would need to contact for response to ensure that your reporting was fair and accurate.
it home: Indicate the specific
steps you would need to take to finish reporting the story. Include the people you would contact
and, if relevant, the places you would visit. Indicate how you would make
the story real to readers.
items you submit should include the following:
- If you
did not get the database from me, provide
an electronic copy of the database and append the database documentation to your project memo.
- If not
already included in your memo, append any statistics or other materials you used to verify the integrity of your
database or to benchmark your
findings. If you wish, append copies of one or two key clips you found in your research.
a “discovery log” to
your project memo. This would
indicate how you arrived at the major insights
you reached during this project. It could be a modified version of the
project log described below (that is: the project log is something you
keep for yourself as you go; the discovery log is what you submit to
me). The discovery log also allows
you a place for some of the salient details of your investigation that
would otherwise clutter up your final project memo.
or include in your discovery log either “screen captures” of the query grids or a copy of the SQL commands for the
queries behind your key findings. We will talk ahead of time about how to
do each of these things. (Computers in Room 2107 are equipped with MWSnap3, a program you can use to
cut and paste part of a screen as an image into a Word document. MWSnap3
is also available as freeware on the Web.)
A few words of advice:
1). Keep a project
log of your all your work on this
assignment. This sort of audit trail would enable you to recreate and confirm
your findings if you were working on a project in a newsroom. You can select
parts of this log for the “discovery log” you will submit with this assignment.
2). Do not change any
of the original data. Make any fixes
by adding new fields.
3). Steady work
on this project will be better than trying to do it all in a rush at the end.
4). Use the IRE
(if you are an IRE member), Lexis-Nexis and other databases to find stories or
even academic research related to your topic.
5). If you are an IRE member, you can check to see if IRE
has tip sheets or Uplink articles on the data you are using. (IRE has a searchable database of Uplink
articles; I have paper copies of some key Uplink articles related to
your databases). This will help you determine if there are established caveats
and opportunities related to the database.
The following criteria will be used to grade your
- Accuracy: This is paramount. Mistakes in logic or computation that
result in erroneous numbers, examples or other details in your memo will
count against you. Check your
work carefully and make sure you understand what the data represent or
the deadline: Projects turned
in late will not be accepted.
To waive the deadline, you must get approval from me in writing
- Following the assignment
guidelines: This includes submitting all required elements.
of the database: Your memo
should show that you understand both the possible uses and the limitations
of the database. Provide specific cautions about possible dirty data, your
assessment of alternate interpretations of your findings, and the steps
you took to make sure the database was reliable.
judgment and context: The top of your memo is especially
important. You should have
developed a sense, from your analysis and the contextual material you
researched, of the news value, novelty and significance of the story you
and writing: The elements of your final memo should be integrated
in a way that makes it easy to read and comprehend. If you were using this memo to persuade
an editor to OK this project, you would have to put it together in a compelling
way. That’s your goal here. Do not just toss together a bunch of
facts and lists that are hard to follow.
Show that you have a strong story idea based on solid work and a
good feel for its value in a newsroom.
A few words about working with data in the newsroom:
After you get a new
data set, there are some things you would do to make sure you are following
good operating procedures that will help protect you and your work from
disaster and error and will enhance your chances of finding interesting leads
related to the structure and completeness of the database itself.
- In the
newsroom, you would start by preserving the original database and working
on a copy. However, in this case,
you have been provided with a copy.
would read all documentation thoroughly.
- You would
make sure the record count
matches the documentation. In the case of this assignment, for which I
have cut a small slice of the data for you, the record count you get would
not match the documentation (for example, the record count provided by
NICAR may be for the US, but you may only have just a few states).
would do some queries to get results you can match against a few things you know to be true. This includes
checking such things as names, addresses, amounts or dates against other
sources of information (paper records, clips, etc.).
would check for duplicate
records. One way to do this is with a “select distinct” query, which I can
show you how to do in class. The number of records obtained in such a query
should match the number in the database if there are no duplicate
records. If there are duplicate
records, a “group-by” query on all fields with a count of records
(selecting only groups with a count of two or more) will show you the
would check for duplicates in
any fields that are supposed to contain unique identifiers or unique
codes, especially in the fields that will be used to join tables. You can do this by grouping on such a
field and doing a count of records to make sure there is only one of each
ID or, in a lookup table, only one of each code.
would check to see how complete the database is – that
is, whether there are important fields for which data are missing (blanks
or null values).
would check the database for coherence.
Are there fields showing ages, dates or amounts that could not logically
be correct? One way to do this is to do a query that sorts each field to
see if the range of values is appropriate. You can add up the values in
numeric fields to see if the totals make sense and do group-by queries
with counts to see if those make sense. Look over text entries – cities,
states, company names, codes – for consistency
would check the design of the
database to see if fields that are supposed to contain dates are date-type
fields (as opposed to text fields), and see if fields that are supposed to
contain numbers are numeric-type fields. Check ZIP code fields to make
sure they are text fields (which they should be).
might find it necessary to do some data “cleanup” – converting text strings to numbers or dates where
appropriate, removing any extra spaces that appear before and after text
entries in some fields, making the case (upper or lower) uniform. If any
of that seems necessary in the case of the data for class analysis, we can
talk about that in class.