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Dean's Digital World

Computer-Assisted Reporting

By Dean Tudor

Dean Tudor

Computer-assisted reporting (CAR): that's the hodge-podge term that is now being applied to all forms of computer work being used by reporters in pursuit of a story. But, it once meant using mainly numbers and statistics, as in "precision reporting" (developed by Phil Meyer, utilizing social science research techniques) or "spreadsheet journalism" (using spreadsheet and database programs, and primarily referring to activities from 1980 through 1993).

Now it means any of three things - the first level of CAR is really just knowing the basics of operating a computer, using a word processor in typewriting mode, or "sending a story to an editor". It can also mean using graphics or photo-images, and even display and layout. Or, digital radio and images. These are all technically-oriented procedures that have little to do with reporting techniques. It's like using a computer as you would a typewriter.

The second level is a bit more ambitious: online searching. Here, you surf the Internet with a webrowser such as Netscape or Lynx, attend to E-mail, read various discussion groups and forums, look at news items, use CD-ROMs, library catalogues, electronic encyclopedias. Generally, you'll be searching for information and gathering it in an electronic mode, saving what you find in some text retrieval program such as List or askSam, or even a wordprocesser such as WordPerfect or MS Word. Online searching, through NEXIS or InfoMart, can be extremely useful for reporters looking for names of people as potential sources.

But even so, here at the second level, you can cruise through a lot of stuff just toggling a few buttons. We still have not reached the original intent of CAR. It is this second level that is pushing journalists into CAR, and into thinking: if I surf the Internet, then I've done CAR...

It just isn't so. For there is the third level of CAR, the really tough application that takes no prisoners. This is the heady world of spreadsheet journalism. And this is what CAR is all about.

This separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls. If you cannot use a spreadsheet, then (to my mind) you're simply not doing computer-assisted reporting.

The trendiness of the Internet has obliterated the original meaning of CAR. There is nothing wrong with that, especially if it attracts more reporters to the use of computers in obtaining stories. But the words CAR have been watered down, and perhaps we should be looking for a better description. Perhaps a return to "spreadsheet journalism" might be more appropriate.

So what advantages does spreadsheet journalism have? Well, as a reporter, you can obtain more information that previously was not readily available. Any computerized analysis of a file can be cross-indexed against another file to reveal similarities or differences. With paper records recorded on computer files, and cross-checked against other files, reporters can save up to TEN YEARS search time!! So reporters can obtain that information much more quickly.

With the results of a computerized analysis of those files, reporters can manipulate information which was not capable of such analysis before. Computers can sort and rank data in a flash, and reporters can easily spot trends and patterns in the results. Journalists can also create their own databases, using a spreadsheet or a database program. Collected data from government and business sources can be entered, as well as the results from interviews. And good stories can result, dealing with red-lining in the banking industry, the insurance crisis, corruption in the organ transplant business, the criminal justice system, property tax inequities, the status of education through the use of educational tests, political campaign expenses, public opinion, prison system, inequities in the health care industry, toxic waste, gambling, drunk driving, drug-dealing, nuclear accidents, political contributions, government inspections, civil servant salaries, religious cults and groups, highway construction, child abuse, occupational safety, pension abuse, government budgets.

Good topics all - and all American.

Why? Because the American government has the philosophy that all government records are open unless labelled closed (through the US Administrative Procedures Act of 1946). The understanding in Canada is that all files are closed unless labelled open. And that's British common law. Consequently, you can easily find an American's SSN, but you cannot find a Canadian's SIN without difficulty.

Does this matter? Well, it does if you are concerned about privacy and the shrinking world of what privavcy is left. Otherwise, Canadian governments will be happy to sell you limited data at a high price, while the American government will sell you a lot of data for the mere cost of transferring it to another tape or CD-ROM. Thus, the US Census can be had for about $99 US, while the Canadian Census (dealing with a tenth of the US size) will cost upwards of $25,000!!

Is this fair? No it isn't. And this policy deliberately prevents good CAR stories about government and business malfeasance since we are unable to obtain all of the necessary data. Sounds like stonewalling to me, with the same attitude as government FOIA/Access pronouncements of the past.

So what can we do? Well, we can create our own spreadsheets and databases, getting the information in bits and pieces and inputting our own data. We can lobby the government to release files and tapes. We can prepare ourselves by learning how to use a spreadsheet - right now - and working on local stories. Some suggested ideas, all involving some work at inputting data, include traffic accidents, crime, budgets, and political contributions.

A student at Ryerson's School of Journalism created a database to determine the worst intersection in Toronto for bicycle accidents. He input the data himself, and he got it published.

It's not much, but it's a beginning. To this end, Ryerson's School of Journalism is setting up the Ryerson Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting in Canada (RICARC) with a mandate specifically to create and run customized training sessions and courses, to hold on-site conferences, to publish reference anbd resource material in both print and electronic formats, to maintain a resource collection of identified Canadian databases, to create and maintain our own databases for research, and to lobby for the release of electronic data.

Meanwhile, until RICARC gets underway in Spring of 1996, here's some more interesting material on "level two" in the CAR world...

The Internet moves so fast that by the time you read this column, there will be about 12 more sites or important databases up and running, about 2 will have shut down, and about 5 will have moved to another location. Still, that's a net gain of 10 addresses or areas containing the sources you need for your story.

What am I talking about here? Let's review the online world of searching: there are commercial databases, there are bulletin boards, there are CD-ROMs in an interactive mode. And there is also the Internet.

Governments have bulletin boards (the prime leader is the US Federal Government, through its FedWorld sites), but there are very few in Canada. Ontario has a couple - one deals with the environment - and so does British Columbia. I am sure that there are others.

But all bulletin board systems (called BBS) are mainly a local phone number call away, and most government boards are also on the Internet. There are, of course, no governments offering commercial databases nor interactive CD-ROMs. They want you to buy the CD-ROM. However, some governments are on local Free-Nets, offering publicly-released data.

That leaves us with the Internet, a sprawling collection of local networks that actually works in providing names of sources. There are three main application programs working for you on the Internet. One is email, which may be one-on-one, or a restricted mail distribution list, or netnews public postings. Another is telnet, which allows you to sign onto another computer - if you have a loginID and password. This allows you full-range to whatever is accessible on such a computer, ie., you can leave messages, you can upload/download, you can process files. The same things you can do with your own computer account.

The third major program is now known as the Web or WWW (World Wide Web). The Web allows you to "get and view" files maintained on public sections of computers around the world. It is a further enhancement of Gopher which itself was a further enhancement of File Transfer Protocol. Hardly anybody does FTP anymore except for masses of binary information. And even these can be had through the Web. The value of the Web, for reporters, is that most files have names and addresses attached to them, so you can actually contact the person who put up the file. This is something not available by Gopher or by FTP. And much government information is available through your Web browser, be it Lynx, Cello, Mosaic, or Netscape.

So here are some VERY important sites, each containing names and addresses of Canadian federal government officials. This article would be more than twice as long if I attempted to cover the provinces and the larger cities. But I will include the major gateweays. Maybe next time...

One of the first places to look is Cannon's Guide to Canadian Government Information (http://www.lib.uwaterloo.ca/discipline/Government/CanGuide). Note: these "addresses" must be typed into your browser EXACTLY as we print them within the parentheses and without spaces, and they are case sensitive. You might be thinking that you should go to Cannon's guide now, and skip this article. But that's wrong because she doesn't have everything. A second good source is Stuart Clamen's Guide to Canadiana (http://www.cs.cmu.edu:8001/Web/Unofficial/Canadiana). He's got most of the rest. And if you have telnet, you might want to go to the National Capital Commission Free-Net in Ottawa (telnet://freenet.carleton.ca) and log on as a "visitor" -- or get an account. The federal government has tons of material there, usually from all of the smaller, Ottawa-based agencies, boards and commissions. Otherwise, you could also try the National Library of Canada's Canadian Information Page (http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/ecaninfo.htm).

If you have a factual and easy query about Canadian life and culture, try the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC. (http://www.nstn.ca/wshdc/). They get these kind of questions all the time from American schoolkids. Or, you may want the Canadiana Collection at (http://www.usask.ca), with the 1991 basic population statistics, lyrics to the anthems, pictures of flags and arms, and much travel information. Other major sources for that deep, archival and background area should include the National Library of Canada's Information Pages (http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/ecaninfo.htm), which is like the Library of Congress site. The Canadian Parliament site, also resembling the LC site, is (http://www.parl.gc.ca/english). For geographic data and maps, try the National Atlas Information Service of Canada (http://www-nais.ccm.emr.ca). Note that all federal government sites have equal amounts of data and names/addresses in the French language.

Search engines for the Canadian govermnment include theCanadian government information explorer (Champlain) at (http://info.ic.gc.ca/champlain/champlain.html) and Canadian Federal Government Links at (gopher://gopher.nlc-
bnc.ca/11gopher%24root%3a%5benglish.can-govs.federal%5d). Also: the Canadian Government Information Finder Technology, a new service abbreviated as GIFT (!), at (http://www.gc.ca). Another good listing of sites is at the Public Works and Government Services Canada web (http://www.Pwgsc.gc.ca/ottawa-e.html). The Open Government Project is also useful (http://www.info.ic.gc.ca/opengov/index.html), with its Industry Canada sponsorship, MPs' contact data, Constitutional and treaty documents. However, most of what you'll find by searching will be scientific/technology agencies dealing with the environment, biology, CISTI (http://www.cisti.nrc.ca/cisti/cisti.html), NSERC, telecommunications policy, and space program. The Internet was originally built for the scientific community and governments, back in the 1960s.

More specific sites include CPAC Online (Cable Parliamentary Channel) at (http://www.screen.com/english.cpac), the Dept. of Communications at (http://debra.dgbt.doc.ca), the Supreme Court of Canada's decisions at (gopher://gopher.droit.Umontreal.ca/11/English/SCC), the CBC (http://www.cbc.ca/index.html), the CRTC
(http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/english.htm), Natural Resources Canada (http://www.emrca/nrcanhp_e.html), National Research Council (http://www.nrc.ca/nrc.html), Health Canada (http://hpb1.hwc.ca/hpb.html), Finance Department (http://www.fin.gc.ca) for budget documents, indigenous peoples at (http://www.inac.ca), and social security items and policy at (http://www.hrdc-drhc.gc.ca). The Privacy Commissioner is (http://info. ic.gc.ca/opengov/opc/privacy.html).

Need the weather? Try the Canadian Meterological Centre at (http://cmits02.dow.on.doe.ca/climate/climate.html). And you should be able to find and then add to your bookmark the weather for your region, so you can get it within seconds and without future menuing.

Statistics Canada is at (http://www.statcan.ca/welcome.html), with extensive explanations of all the publications and how to get them, along with links to such as the Consumer Price Index and the Census. (There is current and early population census data at the University of Toronto - gopher://gopher.epas.utoronto.ca:70/11/data/census/). The Census of Agriculture is (gopher://gopher.epas.utoronto.ca/11/data/agric). You can also go directly to StatsCan's Daily (http://www.statcan.ca/Daily/English/today/daily.htm) for the latest summary information on what is being released today.

Larger pointers to specific resources should include the Canadian Legal Resources at (http://mindlink.net/drew_jackson/mdj.html) which has gateways to many legal databases and sources on the Internet. Canadian Environmental WebServers at (http://www.ns.doe.ca/inform/points/env.html#can) is offered by Environment Canada as a series of Green Lane pointers to other government sources and networks around the world.

Here are the important provincial sites, full of gateways. One is the Quebec government (http://www.gouv.qc.ca/anglais/index.html), another the BC Legislative Assembly (http://bbs.qp.gov.bc.ca/legis/legis.htm) or the BC government (http://www.gov.bc.ca). Alberta is (http://www.gov.ab.ca), Manitoba is (http;//www.gov.mb.ca), New Brunswick is (http://www.gov.nb.ca), and PEI is (http://www.gov.pe.ca). Ontario government is (http://www.gov.on.ca). For cities, try the Free-Net site listing (http://herald.usask.ca/~scottp/free.html). All Free-Nets have copious amounts of local government data and sources.

The largest problem you will find is getting a proper and correct E-mail address.
Computers are not forgiving, so if you don't type it in right, then you'll never get in touch with your source. And bureaucrats seem to be shy with their addresses. You can always write to postmaster@site or root@site (for site, drop the "www" in front of the http addresses). And play around with the name. For example, most Ontario government employees with loginIDs will be name@govonca.gov.on.ca. The name will be about 7 characters, usually the first six of the last name plus the first letter of the first name. But there are variations. The perfectly best way to get an E-mail address is to ask the person, by phone. I know that sounds silly, but it works.

The absolutely best page that I have seen for gateways to information on the Internet for journalists is my own page. I'm not being modest here, because I developed it expressly for all kinds of journalism students from around the world, and there is a significant amount of Canadian content. Try it (http://www.acs.ryerson.ca/~journal/megasources.html).

Pages developed by Canadian journalists include Tom Regan's (http://fox.nstn.ca/~tregan/tom.html) pitched to newspaper journalists, Julian Sher's (http://www.vir.com/~sher/julian.htm) for broadcast journalists, and Mike O'Reilly's HelpLink (http://publix.empath.on.ca/HelpLink), mainly for the freelance writer. Each set of pages here has our own email addresses, along with links to each other. Surely one of the four of us could help solve a problem....

Dean Tudor is Sources Informatics Consultant and a professor of Journalism and Information Science at Ryerson University. He can be reached at dtudor@acs.ryerson.ca.

Published in Sources, Number 37, Winter 1996 .

See:  Other Dean's Digital World Articles


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