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American Journalism Review
Power Journalists  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 1991

Power Journalists   

Reporters armed with databases are exploding big stories, winning prizes and opening a door to the future.

By Katherine Corcoran
Katherine Corcoran is a freelance writer inthe San Francisco Bay area who has worked in newspapers for 10 years.      

Related reading:
   » Beating The Tape Resistance
   » Pitfalls
   » Where To Go

A reporter on deadline is trying to determine salary increases for teachers for his school budget story. Exasperated, he yells across the newsroom, "Anyone remember how to figure percents? Do you divide by the big number or the little number?"

Warning! Warning! Journalist doing math, as one editor used to say.

Reporters are legendary for their disdain of anything technical. This is a group that took to the computer age like a cat to bath water.

But, like everything else about the old heavy-drinking, hard-driving, "we don't need no stinkin' computers" reporter stereotype, this is changing.

Computer-assisted journalism, which evolved slowly for 20 years, has taken off in the past two. Journalists now use computers to crunch millions of statistics and come up with patterns, trends or anomalies undecipherable in a paper search. In many cases, reporters program the computers themselves, leading the low-tech-and-proud-of-it to suddenly talk excitedly about megahertz, gigabytes and down-loading files. The technology gives a new power to a profession many critics say has come to rely too heavily on the words of public officials and statistics provided by special interest groups.

Computer-assisted reporting already has revolutionized investigative journalism – an increasing number of Pulitzer Prize winners have used it in their stories, although the Pulitzer committee has no exact count. And at a few pioneering newspapers, it is doing the same for daily beat reporting.

In the long run, today's technophobic reporters may be replaced by computer nerds with a conscience. "We're still in the early stages of this. Newsrooms are taking baby steps," says Elliot Jaspin, founder and executive director of the Missouri Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. But in the future, "Reporters will have a substantially different set of skills."

Jaspin and others like to point out that paper trails are withering already. More and more, significant records such as those of federal and state government are stored on computer tape.

"This is where the information is. If we're in the information business, we have to have the tools to get at it," says Bill Dedman, who with Jaspin and Richard Mullins is writing a book, "Power Reporting: Your Complete Guide to Computer-Assisted Journal-

ism" to be published in December.

The term "computer-assisted reporting" so far has meant searching for information in on-line databases such as NEXIS. But now it involves acquiring government or commercial computer tapes and analyzing them on mainframe or personal computers and creating databases by combining or cross-matching unrelated data.

It has transformed reporting, bringing an end to what former New York Times reporter David Burnham calls "newspapers as high-priced stenographers."

"You no longer have to rely on the claims of people in power," says Burnham, now a Syracuse University professor and co-director of the Syracuse-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). "We can now use data to see what the agencies of government are actually doing."

For example:

•The Internal Revenue Service claimed throughout the 1980s that underpayment of taxes had risen precipitously during the past 20 years. But a computer analysis of IRS data by Burnham and clearinghouse co-director Susan Long last year showed that tax compliance rates had stayed about the same since 1969.

•The National Transportation Safety Board said the maintenance record of a 25-year-old DC-9 cargo plane that crashed in Cleveland last February was typical of any aircraft that age. But a Cleveland Plain Dealer computer analysis of Federal Aviation Administration records showed a history of equipment malfunctions, including one life-threatening one, not found in similar aircraft.

•Former Ohio Attorney General Anthony Celebrezze Jr., an unsuccessful candidate for governor last year, said he would not accept more than $500 a year in campaign contributions from law firms doing business with his office. But a Dayton Daily News computer analysis matching campaign contributors to licensed attorneys showed that Celebrezze in fact had accepted as much as $35,000 from individual law firms with state contracts.

Computer analysis "changes the balance of power between the reporter and the person being covered," says Dedman, a former Atlanta Journal and Constitution reporter.

Computer-assisted reporting is not new. In fact, the celebrated Philadelphia Inquirer investigative team of Donald Barlett and James Steele used computer data analysis for a project in 1973. The series, "Crime and Injustice," found gross discrimination and disparity in the treatment of defendants in Philadelphia criminal courts. For their project, the reporters gathered by hand more than 100,000 pieces of information that were later entered on IBM punch cards for computer analysis ("The Old Pros of Investigating," WJR , October 1990).

Since then, a number of trailblazing projects periodically have involved computer analysis, including a Miami Herald look at inequities in Dade County property tax assessments in 1979 and a series on handguns used in violent crime done by Cox Newspapers' Washington bureau in 1981.

But 1989 turned out to be the watershed year. That's when Dedman's "The Color of Money," an Atlanta Journal and Constitution database project that showed widespread discrimination against blacks by Atlanta's home-mortgage lenders, won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

That was also the year that Jaspin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter whose interest in computers dated only to 1985, started the Missouri Institute. He had just completed a fellowship at the Gannett Center for Media Studies, where he had designed software for analyzing data on high-powered PCs. One of his creations was NineTrack Express, a program he developed with research assistant Dan Woods that enables access to information stored on nine-track tape, which the federal government often uses.

About the same time, Indiana University Associate Journalism Dean Jim Brown and Pittsburgh Press reporter Andrew Schneider, who's done a number of computer-assisted projects, started the National Institute for Advanced Reporting at Indiana University at Indianapolis, and Burnham and Long got their first grant for TRAC. Reporters and editors – used to working on "dumb" terminals that permit only word processing and typesetting – now had places to go to learn data processing.

"Computer prices were coming down..and reporters were talking to each other," says Schneider, now assistant managing editor for investigations at Scripps-Howard News Service.

In addition, newspapers were preparing to cover the 1990 U.S. Census, the bulk of which was released on computer tape before it came out on hard copy.

Since then, about 70 people have taken Jaspin's week-long computer seminars, and more than 500 attended two computer-assisted journalism conferences at Indiana's Advanced Reporting Institute.

Today most projects are computer-assisted. Among the recent ones:

•By analyzing 1.8 million records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Dayton Daily News reporters Mike Casey and Russell Carollo discovered that workers nationwide were dying on the job and employers were going unpunished. In at least 40 percent of the cases, the companies failed to notify OSHA of the workplace deaths.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters George Landau and Tim Novak cross-matched death certificates, county assessor records and voter registration lists to find dead people voting in East St. Louis.

•After analyzing almost 50,000 child death certificates, Gannett News Service reporters Rochelle Sharpe and Marjie Lundstrom showed that countless child-abuse deaths went undetected because of poorly trained coroners and botched investigations. Their series won a Pulitzer in national reporting this year.

Sharpe finds computer analysis particularly valuable to a wire service. "We have 83 papers across the country, and we calculated autopsy rates for each of their counties. We felt like we were really providing a service. We could point to little problems all over the country."

Although most reporters have used the technology mainly for long-term projects, a handful of papers is beginning to use it for daily reporting. Surprisingly, it's the smaller regional newspapers that seem to be taking the lead. Nearly 20 years after the first Barlett and Steele computer project, The Philadelphia Inquirer still has only one person working part-time on computer analysis for stories. Dwight Morris, who directs computer-assisted reporting for the L.A. Times ' Washington bureau, says bureaucracy at large papers makes for slow change. Others speculate that reporters at smaller papers tend to be more eager and that editors see this as a tool to keep up with larger competitors.

The Dayton Daily News , which has a circulation of 185,000, often is cited by other journalists as the pioneer of the database world. Dayton executives hired Jaspin two years ago to demonstrate the technology; the paper then bought 20 powerful PCs and put them in all departments, including features, business and sports. About 70 of nearly 200 staff members have had some training.

The features department has used computer analysis for a story on battered women, the sports section to look at college athletic budgets. The Daily News also recently linked its PCs to a county government computer, allowing reporters to search tax records, deeds, mortgages and civil court dockets from the newsroom.

Editor Max Jennings says it's not an expensive process, noting that so far the paper has spent less than $5,000 acquiring databases and about $50,000 on equipment. But he also points out that it can be done for a lot less – as little as $3,500.

The Kansas City Star , with a circulation of 290,000, takes a different approach. Reporter Greg Reeves works directly on the paper's mainframe computer, more powerful than PCs, where driver's license records, voter registrations and county assessor records are stored. Reeves analyzes the data not only for long-term projects but also for quick-hit stories on landlords unwittingly renting to crack dealers, mentally disabled people voting although they've been ruled ineligible, and firefighters who despite drunken driving convictions and suspended licenses still drive fire trucks on emergency calls.

At the Raleigh, North Carolina, News and Observer , with a daily circulation of 150,000, Senior Writer Pat Stith is teaching reporters to load nine-track tapes and move data to PC software for analysis.

"We want to make [computers] part of the newsroom like tape recorders, telephones, automobiles or anything else that we use to gather news," says Stith, an investigative reporter in Raleigh for more than 20 years.

Experts differ on how to approach computer-assisted reporting. Jaspin believes reporters, not systems people, should run the computer analysis because "as a reporter, you always have to have control over your information."

He says he set out to design a system for under $10,000 that a reporter would run singlehandedly. He now says it costs about $12,000 to get started with a nine-track tape drive, a PC with a 300 megabyte hard drive, software, a modem and training.

Judy Miller of the San Francisco Chronicle , who took Jaspin's course, says knowing computer language will help a reporter when public agencies try to deny requests for tapes. "Seventy-five percent of the time, because I know the language, I've gotten the databases," she says. And because she does her own analysis, "there's a level of comfort I now have that I wouldn't have off of someone else's data."

Others prefer to hire consultants, which cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars and charge by the project or by the day.

Mark Hass, assistant managing editor for The Detroit News , thinks reporters need to keep a "critical distance" from the computer work; otherwise they become too enamored of numbers. "I didn't want to spend all that money on equipment and have reporters tinkering around," Hass says. "They get blinded by the technology."

Either way, experts warn that it takes time to learn to do it right. "If you don't know what you're doing with data, you have a pretty big chance of screwing it up," says Jim Brown of Indiana University. "The newspaper runs the risk of having the story blown apart by people who know the methodology."

The Boston Globe last year did a five-part series on problems in the Suffolk County court system, including judges showing favoritism and routinely leaving work at noon.

The state supreme court appointed a special investigator to look into potential misconduct. But the investigator took issue with the way the newspaper counted acquittals in concluding that six politically connected lawyers received favorable results for their clients in 80 percent of their cases.

The Globe considers its analysis sound. "You have to be prepared to defend your methodology and prepared to take criticism," says Al Larkin, Globe managing editor for administration. "There's a distinction between this kind of reporting and others. We don't allow people to scrutinize reporters' notes. But when you do computer-assisted reporting, you have an obligation to report your methodology, which comes under considerably more scrutiny."

Computer analysis also forces journalists to consider questions of privacy. Using driver's license records to locate people is one thing. But comparing the weights on driver's licenses for a story on the 10 fattest people in the state is another.

"There is the potential for legislative and public backlash if the material is used irresponsibly," says Dedman. "You can't treat it as a toy..It requires journalistic sensibilities just like any other tool."

Not everyone agrees on how rapidly computer technology will change newsrooms. The recession and declines in readership have spawned current newsroom trends of shorter stories and more stories out of each reporter that run counter to giving reporters time and a big news hole for computer-assisted epics. Budgets have less money for training: Attendance has declined this year in Jaspin's courses and at the Indiana University conference, which dropped from nearly 400 attendees in 1990 to 130 this year.

Jaspin speculates that cost-cutting has kept computer reporting from taking off at most television stations. "Budgets in TV stations are just a disaster," says Jaspin. "The people who are absolutely resistant (to computer-assisted reporting) are the television news executives. I can't get to first base with them."

At one station, WRC in Washington, D.C., reporter Chris Szechenyi, now with NBC News, last year collaborated with Jaspin to find one company manufacturing defective defibrillators – used to revive heart attack patients.

Their computer-assisted project won a National Headliner Award for the series in March, the same month he was laid off because of station budget cuts.

The Indianapolis Star won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting this year for a computer-assisted story on medical malpractice. But the paper has laid off part-time newsroom employees and disbanded its investigative team in a reorganization – although Managing Editor Frank Caperton says the reassignments had nothing to do with the recession.

"It wasn't stated explicitly [that it was a budgetary move], but the word around there was production. And shorter stories don't need computer-assisted journalism," says Joe Hallinan, one of the reporters on the malpractice series who now works for Newhouse News Service.

The L.A. Times ' Morris says the recession is only part of the problem. Technophobia reigns, he says. He points out that Philip Meyer's book, "Precision Journalism," the first to encourage reporters to learn computer programming, was published in 1973. And fewer than a half-dozen of the more than 400 journalism schools in the country teach computer analysis, according to a survey by University of Kansas graduate student Lee Hill.

In the Times Washington bureau, for example, Morris and his assistant are the only two reporters on the staff of 50 with PCs. "This is one of the largest Washington bureaus in existence," he says. "There are extremely intelligent people in here. When they're not writing front-page stories, they're out writing books. You think you can take an industry of people like that and make them numbers junkies? I think not."

TRAC's Burnham agrees that the obstacles are more cultural than technological. "Editors don't really like to have expert reporters. You can't assign them to breaking things. They get too independent..and are sort of a pain in the ass."

But futurists stick to their predictions that once journalists understand the power of computers, they'll have to learn the technology or lose out to the competition.

"Ten years from now..there won't be a term, 'computer-assisted reporting,' " says Dedman. "It would be like saying pen-and-paper assisted reporting."

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