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Computer Assisted Journalism

By Alanna Mitchell


Some call it "computer-assisted"journalism. Others say it is "precision" journalism.

The common term in Canada has become computer-assisted reporting (CAR-a phenomenon that is rapidly changing the way journalism is conducted in many media in the United States and in a few places in Canada.

What the labels really refer to is the process of gathering lots of statistics from government and commercial sources and then using a computer to figure out what they mean.

It's not yet very big in Canada-for a whole bunch of good reasons-but it's something Canadian journalists will ignore at our peril. Not only do we run the risk of missing out on great stories, but we also risk being left behind the next generation of journalists who will be fluent in hitech search techniques.

In ten years, not knowing how to pull statistics out of a database and use a spreadsheet to interpret them will be like not knowing how to use the phone book.

Computer-assisted reporting has become standard practice in many newsrooms across the United States. New York Newsday, USA Today, The Miami Herald and The Los Angeles Times have all poured money and time into CAR projects. So have many smaller papers.

At least seven Pulitzer Prizes have been won in recent years by American reporters using data they got through computer records.

These are some of the stories generated by computer tapes: Blacks were being denied mortgages in Atlanta; New York City owed property owners $275 million in overpaid taxes; a chief prose-cuter in St. Louis cracked down on pornography by day, but spent tax dollars on prostitutes at night.

Many of these stories were made possible because Americans make a whole lot of information publicly available. There, any tax-financed organization that collects data is bound by law to release that information to anyone who asks. Not only that, government records are likely to be computerized.

So popular is database use in some parts of the United States that some states-Florida is one example-have an office that sells data tapes over the counter for a small fee. .

The picture in Canada is completely different. Here, much of the information governments collect is kept carefully hidden. Canadian federal and provincial governments actually hold Crown Copyright on government-collected data to protect themselves from having to make it public.

The federal government's own statistical agency-Statistics Canada-is prevented by law from publishing any data that could identify an individual. And while governments here are grappling with the issue of whether they ought to be able to sell access to information-individual identities aside-most have not yet decided what to do about it.

Not only that, but many data files at various levels of government are unlikely to be catalogued. The experts say bureaucrats often have absolutely no idea what information they have. And what they have is not likely to be computerized as it would be in the U.S

In fact some Canadian records, such as election contribution data, property ownership files and birth and death information, are only collected in written form. When records do happen to be kept electronically, the computer is likely to be part of a patchwork of systems that don't "talk" to each other.

What that means for Canadian journalists is that it is tough to get our hands on the statistics that could lead to terrific stories--especially statistics in electronic form. The Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) concluded from its survey of the industry in 1992 that: "Canadian government policies, laws and regulations make the accession of government information holdings by the private sector difficult and often impossible."

There are other drawbacks to CAR projects. Journalists can spend weeks or months immersed in a speculative project that could turn out no good story. It can be very expensive. It can get frustrating. Even after the numbers are crunched, the journalist has to know how to interpret them. The numbers alone rarely make a story. Usually, they are only the launching pad for any investigation.

But the rewards of computer-assisted reporting can be tremendous. Just ask the Pulitzer Prize winners in the States.

Alanna Mitchell is the Social Trends Reporter for The Globe and Mail.


Published in Sources 33, Winter 1993/1994

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