Here it comes to save the day: When reporters are drowning in data, the computer helps them conquer the facts and forge new kinds of stories
Last November, The Hamilton Spectator published a story about murder. Despite the subject matter, it wasn’t a typical news story. In fact, it wasn’t a news story at all. Though reporter Adrian Humphreys spoke to police, Crown attorneys, criminologists and even the victims’ families, he didn’t just report their observations and opinions. Instead, he spent several weeks painstakingly gathering the details of every homicide in Hamilton-Wentworth for the last 10 years and analyzing it himself using a computer.
The result was a five-part, 10,000-word piece examining the general profile of murder in Hamilton, the sentences received by the killers, the locations where the killings took place, the characteristics of the victims’ families and the details of the few cases that remained unsolved. Humphreys’ article reached beyond the facts for the larger story: not just a murder or a series of murders, but murder in general, a decade of murder in the city of Hamilton.
The murder story is just one example of a new kind of journalism being done at the Spectator and in a handful of newsrooms across Canada. Computer-assisted reporting, as it’s called, encompasses many different techniques. At its most basic level, it includes any use of computers for reporting as opposed to writing. This could mean getting information from the Internet; communicating with sources via e-mail; storing, searching and sorting interview transcripts in a free-form database; making financial calculations in a spreadsheet; or doing statistical analysis of government databases. At its most sophisticated, computer-assisted reporting also involves a reporter gathering empirical data, analyzing it and reaching original but objective conclusions, an approach called precision journalism.
Both types of CAR make reporting more precise, more authoritative and more comprehensive, freeing journalists from having to rely on statements from governments, corporations or experts. At the same time, a reporter armed with computerized analysis is able to ask more pertinent, specific questions when interviewing sources. All this adds up to better journalism.
Computer-assisted reporting is relatively new at the Spectator. When Kirk LaPointe took over as editor in January 1997, he immediately began to bring the newsroom up-to-date in its use of technology. One of the first things he did was give every reporter direct access to the Internet. He also set aside a full page for a daily “big read” feature and scheduled time for reporters to develop stories for it. The murder story fit right into that framework.
“My vision for the paper is that we should be the best in Canada at computer-assisted reporting,” says LaPointe. “There are two ways to look at where we are now. One is that we’re a long way from where I feel we need to be, but the other is that we’re not far from being the best in the country. It’s not a very aggressive field at the moment.”
As LaPointe suggests, computer-assisted reporting has been adopted somewhat unevenly in Canada. Internet access and e-mail, for example, are now quite common in newsrooms, while spreadsheet analysis is rare outside of business reporting. And there are still only a handful of reporters doing analysis with databases or statistical tools, although those who are set a high standard. Kevin Donovan’s work at The Toronto Star, for example, has produced several extremely successful stories.
Donovan became interested in computer-assisted reporting as a way of broadening the scope of his investigative work. His first project, published in May 1995, used analysis of several government databases to uncover waste and corruption in Ontario’s nonprofit housing program under the Liberal and NDP governments. Next, Donovan was the database editor for a series by Rita Daly, Jane Armstrong and Caroline Mallan on spousal abuse called “Hitting Home.” The series, which tracked 133 cases of domestic violence through the court system for 18 months, was published in March and November of 1996. In April 1997, the “Cry for the Children” series, which Donovan wrote with fellow Star reporter Moira Welsh, documented the failure of the Children’s Aid system to protect children who were being abused (see “Blanket Statements,” Spring 1998). “Before nonprofit housing, the Star had done stories on individual housing project units,” Donovan says. “But it’s way better to do it on the whole thing.”
These series led to such changes as the creation of a new domestic court in Metro Toronto, the establishment of new police protocols for cases of domestic abuse and a coroner’s review of child deaths over a five-year period in Ontario. The spousal abuse series won a National Newspaper Award, the B’nai Brith human rights award and shared the Michener award for meritorious public service with the child abuse series; the latter series was also nominated for a Canadian Association of Journalists investigative award.
The Halifax Chronicle-Herald has also done several large CAR projects. The first, published in December 1995, just after the districts of Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford and Halifax County were amalgamated into the supercity of Halifax, was a demographic profile of the new city based on 1991 census data, reinterpreted to reflect the new municipal borders. In May 1996, the Herald did a comparison of Nova Scotia schools based on standardized test scores. The Herald put the entire series on its Website and even made the raw data for each school available. This past November, the Herald completed a third project, an analysis of census data showing how the province has changed over the past 45 years.
According to Paul Schneidereit, new media editor at the Herald, who worked on all three pieces, these stories were well received by the public. “People liked the series and many had questions sparked by the content, suggesting other areas of interest,” he says. But Schneidereit says that he got very little reaction from fellow journalists: “I think maybe it wasn’t hot enough, which I do understand. These pieces were not ‘gotcha’ stories but examinations of issues.”
Computer-assisted reporting has been employed by journalists at several other Canadian newspapers and on CBC Radio and CBC-TV, but the total number of stories produced using CAR still remains relatively low. One reason is that many journalists don’t feel the technique is applicable to their own work. John King, deputy managing editor at The Globe and Mail, notes that most of the CAR he has seen tends to concentrate on local issues: “Because more of the Globe‘s resources are allocated to the national stuff than the local stuff, we haven’t gone into that kind of reporting in the same way.”
One of the first investigative reports to use computer analysis was done in 1972 by Donald Barlett and James Steele of the Philadelphia Inquirer. They combed through more than 20,000 pages of public records to assemble complete histories of 1,374 incidents of murder, rape, robbery and assault that took place in 1971. Then they developed a coding system to record such items as the race of victims and the suspects, the assailants’ previous arrest records and the length of the final sentences. Assistants then entered the codes onto punch cards and ran them through an IBM mainframe computer. The result was 4,000 pages of printout, which Barlett and Steele combined with courtroom reporting and interviews with police, lawyers, defendants and judges to produce a story about the unequal justice being dispensed by the court system.
Barlett and Steele had been introduced to computerized analysis by another reporter, Philip Meyer, who wrote the program they used to analyze their data. Although newspapers had used statistical analysis before, particularly for polling purposes, Meyer was among the first journalists to use computing for a story. Awarded a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard University in 1966, he spent his year there studying the quantitative analytical techniques used in the social sciences. Then in the summer of 1967, he used a computer to analyze survey data in order to uncover some of the causes of the Detroit riot in a Pulitzer-winning series for the Detroit Free Press.
Meyer later wrote a book, published in 1973, that became almost the bible of computer-assisted reporting. It described a new style of journalism based on the scientific method and the principles of objectivity. He called the book Precision Journalism to distinguish his approach from the more literary “new journalism” practiced by writers like Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer.
Interest in computer-assisted reporting grew among investigative reporters, but it wasn’t until the early ’90s that it became widespread. The catalyst was Bill Dedman’s May 1988 “redlining” series for The Atlanta Constitution, which compared bank records with census data, exposing racial discrimination in the lending patterns of Atlanta banks. It won him the 1989 Pulitzer for investigative reporting.
In Canada, one of the first reporters to practise computer-assisted reporting was Bill Doskoch of Regina’sLeaderPost. He was introduced to the idea at the 1990 CAJ convention by James Brown of the National Institute for Advanced Reporting at Indiana University. “I was quite taken with the whole notion of CAR,” Doskoch said, “and bought my own computer a year later, which gave me a massive technological advantage. The LeaderPost to this day still uses dumb terminals hooked up to a mainframe.”
In 1992 he attended a NIAR convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, and began incorporating computerized analysis into his reporting at the LeaderPost. His first story was a sidebar to a feature he was writing about women in the NDP. He used a spreadsheet to analyze provincial election records back to the founding of Saskatchewan in 1905. He found that while the Liberal Party had nominated far more women candidates than the NDP, women candidates from the NDP had a much better chance of being elected. Since then, Doskoch has done several smaller computer-assisted pieces and has been active in promoting computer-assisted reporting through the CAJ.
Another of the early proponents was Robert Washburn, who at the time was a reporter for the Cobourg Daily Star. His first exposure to computer-assisted reporting was in 1992, soon after he bought his first computer, a Mac Classic II. He began looking for information on CAR and found it in an essay written by Doskoch. “It was like Paul on the road to Damascus,” says Washburn. “I was blinded by the brilliance of it all. I thought, ‘My God, this is great!’ The idea of using on-line resources and analyzing data just blew me away.”
So Washburn jumped in his car and drove the 100 kilometres to Toronto to meet with David Stewart-Patterson, then business editor at CTV’s Canada AM and president of the CAJ. They sat down in the CTV cafeteria and Washburn sketched out his ideas for a caucus within the CAJ devoted to new technology. This was the beginning of the CAR Caucus, which later became known as the CAR Network.
The new organization held its first conference in Canada at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario, in February 1994. A larger conference at Carleton University in Ottawa followed in August. Since then, the CAR Network has held training workshops across the country and has become one of the CAJ’s largest caucuses, with over 100 of its approximately 1,500 members. “It’s really blossomed,” says Washburn. “Besides all the training stuff, we’ve also involved ourselves in freedom of information, because, of course, we want to gain access to information from government in electronic format. Right now in Canada it’s very difficult to access raw data.”
Access to data is one of the reasons why computer-assisted reporting is only slowly being adopted in Canada. Many of the computer-assisted reports that regularly appear in American media would simply be impossible to produce in Canada. Where U.S. freedom of information laws emphasize the public’s right to scrutinize the activities of the government, Canadian laws favour the protection of the government’s ability to govern and the individual’s right to privacy.
In a broad sense, the two laws are actually quite similar. Both give access to all records held by government agencies, with specific exemptions for certain types of records-mainly those relating to national defence, law enforcement, internal governmental decision-making processes and confidential information submitted to the government by a third party. The real differences are in the details and interpretation of the laws.
The privacy exemption in the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, for example, is discretionary. The government has the option of withholding information that would constitute a “clearly unwarranted” violation of an individual’s privacy but is not required to do so. In practice, this means that the information must shed light on the activities of a government agency or official-which is usually what journalists are after.
The privacy exemption in the Canadian Access to Information Act, on the other hand, is mandatory. It specifies that a government agency may not release any type of information on an individual unless the head of the agency decides that it will serve the public interest. But public interest doesn’t require the agency to release anything. The Canadian law does a much better job protecting privacy, but at the same time it often makes it difficult for journalists to get the information they need.
But even where the law requires governments to disclose information, Canadian reporters often have difficulty obtaining it. Kevin Donovan at The Toronto Star routinely has to appeal to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. Over a coffee in the Star cafeteria, he talks with rueful exasperation about how hard it is to get the data he needs for his stories. “The government doesn’t want to release this stuff because it’s embarrassing,” says Donovan. “We have people inside the government who desperately want to get information out, but the corporate mentality is ‘Can’t release anything.'”
Government ministries also use delaying tactics to attempt to suppress potentially sensitive information. In his report to Parliament in 1997, John Grace, the federal information commissioner, wrote, “Delay in responding to access-to-information requests is now at crisis proportions. Given the clear and mandatory obligations placed on government to provide timely 30-day responses, the flouting of Parliament’s will in some institutions is a festering, silent scandal.” Grace cited a review of Health Canada’s records that showed that 80 per cent of requests were delayed. Throughout the system, delays can range from a few weeks to more than a year.
Donovan says he tries to tailor his requests so they will be dealt with more quickly-for example, by specifically stating that he does not want personal information such as names or addresses. Although this can speed up the process by reducing bureaucratic delays, it’s not useful when government ministries, intent on suppressing information, deliberately stall. As an example, Donovan talks about a request he made in connection with child deaths. He wanted files related to cases of sudden infant death syndrome in Ontario. But even though he requested that all identifying information be removed, he wasn’t given what he needed because the coroner’s office claimed that some of the cases might be still under investigation. “Well, they can say something is under investigation forever, right?” he says. “We’ve had to go to court before on other cases to prove that something is not being investigated. It takes a year to do that. A year from now I’m probably going to be doing another story-I’ll have moved on, and they’ll have won.” Almost incredulously, Donovan tells of another FOI battle he fought. Early in 1991 he wrote a series of stories exposing corrupt politicians in the City of York. The province responded by creating a special police task force, Project 80, charged with investigating allegations of corruption in the municipal governments in the greater Toronto area. After several years, Donovan noticed that the only convictions Project 80 had achieved were from the original cases in York. When he asked how much it cost to run the project, the solicitor general’s office refused to tell him. So he filed a request under freedom of information legislation. The resulting legal battle spanned two years and three appeals. He estimates that the story, which eventually ran 35 column inches on page seven, might have cost the Star $20,000. The victory was important, since he has used it as a precedent in other cases, but it also shows why CAR is so much more difficult in Canada than in the U.S.
“We fought that thing all that way. And by the time we did it, Project 80 was gone. This is the frustration: we’re doing all the right things and we’re fighting these cases and that’s just to get a bunch of papers saying how much cops are paid. In the States it’s in a book somewhere. It’s probably on the cops’ Website. It’s a different attitude.
“We have a hard time doing regular investigations because we can’t get the government information. Now we’re trying do stuff where we’re trying to get not just one bit of information but 1,000 bits of information. It’s not like we just file a request and sit back and they tell us no and we go away. We don’t. But what can you do, short of storming the barricades of government and stealing the information?” says Donovan.
Donovan’s success with computer-assisted reporting has received a mixed reaction from others at the Star.Many of the people he works with are content to concentrate on traditional reporting. Others have begun to pick up the computer skills necessary for precision journalism. Moira Welsh, who worked on the Children’s Aid series, for example, has gone to the States for training at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. Welsh says the training and work on the CAS series have changed the way she approaches investigative reporting. “Whereas before you might approach a story by trying to simply talk to a lot of people, in this case, you try to collect as much data as you can-in addition to interviewing every person you can possibly find.”
Over at The Hamilton Spectator, Adrian Humphreys is pleased with the positive response his work has provoked. The murder story generated a number of calls from the public and received a good response from journalists both inside and outside the Spectator. “Immediately after the series ran I think I got five requests from my colleagues to help them out-they had their ideas for stories or series. I’ve been doing little mini-tutorials around the newsroom.”
Humphreys’ work has led to a flurry of smaller stories involving computerized analysis by other reporters at the Spectator and he has set up an analysis workstation in the newsroom library and begun giving training sessions to those interested in using it. He also has plans for new projects of his own.
The first of these is already underway, although he’s cagey about the details.What he will say is that it’s going to be about education and will cover the entire province rather than just the city of Hamilton. There is one thing he’ll do differently the second time around: “I’m demanding the data be on disk. I’m not about to enter in the data for the entire province. That was one of the problems I faced with the murder series-having to get the information in very traditional ways and then trying to use it in an untraditional manner.”
The new enthusiasm for computer-assisted reporting at the Spectator fits right into LaPointe’s overall plan for the paper. He wants to see computerized analysis become part of the routine of the newsroom, as Internet research already has. “I don’t think that many newsrooms at this point can afford to set people off in the corner and say, ‘From now on you just do CAR,'” says LaPointe. “I think it has to be approached project by project and I think you have to borrow time from doing other things the conventional way. At the moment I don’t believe that there is a decent enough return on your investment of time and energy to do that. But as the information becomes more accessible, more journalists will find that computer-assisted reporting is an effective and an efficient way to work.”
For now, most newsrooms in Canada don’t have the resources to dedicate a reporter to a single story for weeks on end. This effectively rules out the large, labour-intensive projects that Donovan and Humphreys have done.
But small newsrooms can benefit from computer-assisted reporting as well. Monday Magazine, an alternative weekly in Victoria, does computer-assisted investigative reporting on a shoestring budget. In May 1996, it ran a two-part series analyzing campaign contributions in the upcoming provincial election. Monday‘s news editor, Russ Francis, and editor James MacKinnon, obtained an electronic copy of B.C.’s public accounts. The data on campaign donations was only available in hard copy, so it had to be entered by hand. Finally, they went to the province for the names of the principals of many of the companies that had made donations. Then they used a computer to sort all the names into alphabetical order so they could go through it looking for matches. The project took about a month to complete.
Francis says Monday can’t afford to have anyone working exclusively on computer projects-but that didn’t prevent the magazine from doing precision journalism.”We take on projects and just find a way to do them,” he says. “We find the time later. I’m sure there are lots of things we wouldn’t do if we worried about where we were going to find the time first.”
Francis and MacKinnon also made maximum use of the equipment they had available. The computer they used to analyze the data was nearly a decade old, but that just meant they had to wait a bit longer for the results. “A lot of people think you need to have the very latest and fastest equipment to do this, but you don’t,” said Francis. “For a long time our Internet access was via a 286. We’ve improved a bit since then, but youcan actually do it.” Francis also mentions that you can buy a 286-based computer for under $300, which even the smallest newsrooms should be able to afford. “They’re practically giving them away. And that’s all you need, plus basic Internet access.You have phenomenal access to information these days that way, much cheaper than by hard copy means. Just in time going down to the library it will pay for itself in a week.”
But the real benefit of computer-assisted reporting can be more than just saving money or reporters’ time. It’s more than flashy multipart stories. The practitioners of precision journalism argue that it makes them better journalists.
Kevin Donovan has been an investigative reporter for nearly 10 years. He feels his work has gotten stronger since he began using computers. “What it has done for me is that, instead of looking at one company, one person, one cop, one child, I tend to look at things in a more global way.” He says that without the computer analysis, the child-abuse series would have been “just a bunch of talking heads”; instead, the hard data he and Welsh obtained prompted change. “If we had not done that,” Donovan says, “we wouldn’t be able to say that it takes 44 months on average to remove a child to safety, which has become the cornerstone of the changes that Children’s Aids are going through in Ontario.
“You gotta think, ‘What should journalism do?’ I think we should change things. I think we should be investigating problems in society and writing about them. And that’s what we’ve been doing lately. The Star is suggesting solutions, based on the research and what the people out there are saying.”
Dana Robbins, the metro editor at the Spectator, finds that precision journalism is a better way to achieve the journalistic ideal of objectivity. He compares it with the more traditional technique of showing both sides of the story: “On issue X, you go out and you canvas five, six, eight, whatever opinions of what issue X is, and then you regurgitate that for the readers. The truth is that sort of he-said, she-said journalism rarely advances anything and rarely allows people to form any sort of thoughtful opinion.”
CAR takes the opposite approach. Robbins points out that the second story in the murder series found that the men who murdered their wives received the harshest sentences in Hamilton. “That’s completely contrary to the common perception,” he says, “and certainly completely contrary to what you would get if you went out and asked Joe Blow from here, Sam Blow from here, Susan Blow from there. You would not have got that story. You would not have got the truth, the reality about what is happening in our courts. So not only is it more authoritative, it’s more reliable.”
Precision journalism provides facts, which a good reporter can express in a way that leaves the public with more than just the balance of opinions. Often, that’s the difference between a story that’s fair and accurate and a story that’s true.
by Colin Putney
Colin Putney was an Online Editor for the Summer 1998 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.