Shop Notes

Original research, new tools highlight conference

Posted: March 5, 2013 | Tags: NICAR

I came away from last week’s National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting conference feeling pretty good about the future of journalism. In newsrooms large and small, reporters and editors are experimenting with bold new ways to gather, analyze and present the news. Despite its serious economic problems, the field continues to attract a wealth of talented and energetic people, including some folks with backgrounds and educations that wouldn’t have been sought after or welcomed in the past.

NICAR is sponsored by IRE — Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. IRE has been holding NICAR conferences since 1993, and this year’s in Louisville, Ky., was the largest ever. In the crowd were, of course, many of us “seasoned veterans” (I have been doing computer-assisted reporting since 1982 and have attended all but one or two of the NICAR conferences), as well as a significant number of first-time attendees learning or stretching new skill sets.

It was heartening to hear that after years of newsroom penny-pinching, many of the conference-goers were there on their employer’s dime. Over the years, a great many IRE members have paid their own way to conferences and training sessions so they could get better at their jobs. One of the great shames of this field is that too few employers have been willing to invest adequately in improving the skills of those who work for them. The IRE blog covered many of the panels. And there was a lively Twitter feed: #NICAR13  

The conference takeaway for me is not only how data-driven journalism continues to expand, but also how it has fundamentally altered the approach that many of the world’s best journalists take in their daily work. It also provided some glimpses into where we might be headed.

When I became a reporter more than four decades ago, the field’s relationship with data analysis and statistics was often remote, if not antagonistic. Our training barely brushed on mathematics. When we used numbers in stories, they were generated by our sources and often taken at face value or with little of the skepticism we were taught to apply to other forms on information. We simply weren’t equipped for the task.

The development of computer-assisted reporting, beginning in the 1980s, saw journalists starting to take raw data from sources (mostly from government agencies) and apply their own analysis to the information. Often these analyses provide the public with a better understanding of how government and businesses operate. Our BankTracker project is an example of this, in my admittedly biased opinion. New tools and methods of displaying information visually are certainly making these stories more accessible to larger portions of the audience. And they have required journalists to learn much more about the power (and limits) of statistical methods and analysis. 

In recent years, the field has attracted more and more people whose training and education give them the interest and capacity to conceive and execute these projects. I’ve written previously about their emergence.

But we might be headed in an entirely new direction — one in which news organizations generate the raw data themselves, becoming original researchers akin to the way academic researchers work. Reporters at USA TODAY have provided two high-profile examples of this approach in recent years. In 2008, the newspaper published a project it called “The Smokestack Effect” about air quality around the nation’s schools. Part of the data from that came from of air-quality sensors the newspaper placed near 95 schools around the nation. Last year the newspaper tested soil samples in the vicinity of 21 sites where companies operated lead smelters. 

Matt Waite, who now teaches journalism at the University of Nebraska, has been advocating that journalists become more active in gathering their own data. Waite is well-known and respected in data journalism circles. As a member of the staff of the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) he helped develop Politifact  and has helped develop other online journalism sites, including the Investigative Reporting Workshop’s site.

Last year at NICAR, he demonstrated a small drone. At Nebraska he has created Drone Lab to study and experiment with ways journalists might use the small unmanned aerial vehicles (once some pesky legal and regulatory barriers have been overcome).

This year, he and a colleague placed a small sensor inside his luggage and tracked it as it made its way from Lincoln to Louisville through the airline baggage system and the Transportation Security Administration’s inspection. Every tenth of a second, the tiny device transmitted its location and other information to a disk like the ones found in cell phones and digital cameras onboard the sensor. As part of a NICAR session, Waite showed a graphic of the sensor’s output.

At the moment, these are not truly serious tools for journalists. But among other things, Waite envisions using drones to collect data from disaster sites and to track environmental issues. (For part of an upcoming video project on climate change, Workshop producers used a drone on a shoot last month.) Last summer some of his students used a drone to capture images revealing the extent of a severe drought in Nebraska. At a NICAR panel, he showed off the drone and talked about their potential uses, such as sports teams now using drones and sensors to track real-time performance of professional athletes. The University of Missouri Journalism School also has started a drone training program.

Of course, these developments won’t come without controversy both inside and outside journalism. Some Missouri legislators have expressed misgivings about the privacy implications of using drones to collect information for stories. But, to me, the important point at this juncture is that it is journalists who are engaging in experimentation. For a field that has been far too complacent and reactive for far too long, that’s a good sign.


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