This is an updated version of a handout for a reporting workshop I used to present more than a decade ago. I have updated it for my Advanced News Gathering class this semester at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. Many of the tips here came from my World-Herald colleagues, Paul Goodsell, Joe Kolman, Nichole Aksamit and Cindy Gonzalez, with whom I collaborated on the original workshop. Other colleagues, perhaps most notably former Digital First Media colleagues Tom Meagher and MaryJo Webster (who will address my class remotely Thursday), taught me things I used in updating that old handout to use now.
No competent reporter would consider doing the job without knowing how to interview or take notes or to dig for records. In 21st-Century journalism, using data is not a specialized skill. It’s an essential skill.
Even if you haven’t mastered high-level analysis and visualization skills (just as some reporters are better than others at interviewing or working sources), every reporter needs to use data at least at a basic level to find answers and tell stories. Whatever your level of ability, you should seek to learn more about the data sources on your beat and how to access and use them.
Ask for electronic records. When an agency you cover releases a report or some annual statistics, ask for the report in a digital format. We can incur significant expenses when we ask public agencies to sort data for us (though often much less than they might tell you initially). But every report already exists in an electronic file that should be easy and cheap to obtain. Whether you use the data immediately or not, you should have it on hand electronically.
Pursue the data. Ask for data as aggressively as you insist on access to any other public record. You must not be intimidated when it comes to asking for electronic information. When someone cites facts in an interview, you already are used to asking, “How do you know that?” and asking for copies of any reports the source is citing. Ask for an electronic copy as well. Often the source would rather e-mail you the report rather than find an envelope anyway. Don’t ask just for the report itself, but for the raw data on which it was based.
Consider different uses. As you learn about data sources, consider what stories you might pursue based primarily on this data. Consider how you might use this data for information to support other stories you might do. Consider how you might use the data routinely. Consider how the data might be useful to colleagues on other beats.
Use the Internet. Visit the Web sites of public agencies and private organizations on your beat and learn what data sources are available readily online. Learn what reports and statistics are posted online. Learn whether the agencies post searchable databases online or pdf files that are more cumbersome to use online. (Various tools can help you extract data from pdfs, and a pdf can also identify electronic records you could obtain to sort and search yourself). Browse the databases to learn what information they offer and consider how that information might be useful in stories.
Get budgets. Obtain the budgets and spending records of public agencies in electronic form so you can use a spreadsheet to look for trends, changes, irregularities.
Get directories. Learn what sort of basic information the agencies on your beat might have in electronic form: personnel rosters, payroll records, government board rosters.
Get an updated version of the payroll records periodically — say quarterly — and you’ll have a good way of tracking government raises. It’s searchable and, thus, a nice way to double-check a name spelling and job title and salary, a good way to know who’s been with the city the longest and who’s a newbie, an easy way to access a list of the city’s highest and lowest-paid employees. It’s particularly useful when a public employee makes other news — gets arrested or fired or wins an award — or when you are just searching for an employee who might have been around during a particular time period or has experience in a given area.
Listen for data behind statistics. When sources tell you they are tracking or studying something — a certain kind of complaint, the condition of city roads, housing code violations, etc. — chances are they are working from a database or a spreadsheet. Ask “How do you know that noise complaints have risen or that 65 percent of the streets are in good condition?” and then ask to see their work, which may prompt other stories. In most jurisdictions, the data should be public record, and you should ask for it.
Interview the data. Think of data as another source that you interview. Do you want to know how many single mothers of a particular race or age group live in a particular community? You could probably call a number of people and get some vague answers and some anecdotal sense of whether the number is growing or declining, but why not ask the Census Bureau? Think of questions you could ask the data on your beat: What bar has the most liquor-law violations? What school has the best (or worst) test scores? What intersection has the most accidents?
Study the data first. Reporters are at a great advantage when they go into an interview knowing at least something, and sometimes a lot, about the information the source deals with. If you can find some data online or in a database you already have acquired, check that before you interview a source. It helps you ask better questions and helps you catch the source in mistakes or lies.
Organize with spreadsheets. A spreadsheet helps you understand information. You spot relationships, trends, reversals, gaps. You can use a spreadsheet for something as simple as a source list or chronology, or to analyze thousands of pieces of data.
Enter data yourself. Sure, it’s nice to get data e-mailed to you, but don’t forget that you can enter data yourself. Often an afternoon at a courthouse or government office searching through paper records yields a notebook full of information you can analyze and understand better if you take a few hours to enter it in a spreadsheet.
Use Census data. Census data are not just the basis for Census stories, but provide helpful information about families, housing, economics and communities for a wide range of stories. The Quick Facts section of the site provides data about any state, city, parish, county, town or zip code in the country. For instance, you can quickly learn demographic, business, housing, income (and much more) for the city of Baton Rouge.
Seek federal data. If any federal agency has jurisdiction on your beat, it probably has some data available. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a “data tools” tab that opens a number of opportunities for information on employment, productivity and other economic topics. The Bureau of Justice Statistics offers similar data sets on crime, courts and prisons. Data.gov gives a guide to federal data on a wide range of topics.
Seek state and local data. Access to data and quality of data that you can access online or through public records requests varies by state and local jurisdiction, as laws and compliance with laws varies. Sometimes you have to search for data by agency. Other times a government jurisdiction, such as the City of Baton Rouge, will provide a portal to data from all agencies. Sometimes media organizations and public interest groups have already acquired data sets and made them easily accessible online. Louisiana Sunshine, a project of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, makes many state data sets easy to access.
Think critically about data. Former World-Herald reporter Joe Kolman had this quote from Dick O’Reilly of the LA Times taped to his desk: “The most important lessons in CAR are not which keys to push on the keyboard, but how to think critically about data. People who learn to think that way will learn which keys to push because doing so becomes fundamental to their quests. People who only learn what keys to push really haven’t learned anything.”