Writing by Numbers



On a summer evening rush hour in Minneapolis, the Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi river collapsed taking 13 lives.

Within days of the initial coverage, more than 100 reporters were scouring data collected by the Federal Highway Administration to write stories about their own local bridges, says Mark Horvit, executive director of the group Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Minnesota’s I-35 collapse on Aug. 1, 2007 was an important example of computer assisted reporting (CAR). Journalists were doing work in days that before would have taken weeks.

In Canada, while at Toronto’s CTV news, Ian Caldwell and his team of reporters set a legal precedent in the use of CAR. When working on a marijuana grow-op story in 2007, Caldwell used a Freedom of Information (FOI) request and used CAR to map illegal activity from the data.

 His request was initially refused by the York Regional Police, but the ruling was overturned because it was reasoned that it was a matter of public safety.

Caldwell’s work opened the floodgates for CAR, making personal addresses available to the public. Now, papers such as the Kitchener-Waterloo Record have a regular feature, which maps crimes, crashes and fires in the area.

While the Canadian Access to Information Act is slowly becoming more inclusive for reporters, Canada is lagging behind its neighbours to the south.

According to media rights organization Reporters Without Borders, the U.S. took a step forward by legislating a new Freedom of Information Act on Dec. 31, 2007. It set up a hotline for public requests for information from federal agencies, a tracking system for the requests and an office to mediate disputes. Federal agencies are also required to provide information unless it poses  a major national security risk.

But in Canada, even as the demand for news becomes more immediate, responses to requests for government information are too slow, says Canadian Journalists for Free Expression manager Julie Payne.

“One of the problems is that there is a significant time between when you make a request and when you receive the information,” she says.
Payne says that too much information is unavailable. She cites the information the Globe and Mail requested about RCMP taser usage. The document had so much blacked-out information on it that there was barely anything to report.

Caldwell, now working for Metroland Media Group, has run into many problems that continue to plague reporters looking for raw data.

“The raw data is not necessarily more readily available,” Caldwell says. “If you do a freedom of information request, you still have difficulty getting things in table format and in a way that you can just import it into a database.”

After the information is retrieved, however, there is a process of reporting using raw data that goes beyond traditional statistics, Horvit says. It is less about the technology, but rather a new avenue to pursue stories using the same journalistic principles that a reporter applies to any story.

“It’s an old, tried and true saying that ‘numbers can lie, statistics can lie.’” says Horvit, who teaches journalism mainly to working journalists. “That’s one of the things we tend to show in class – that you take one set of numbers and you can use it several ways, if you care to, to show what you want to show.”

Horvit says the fundamental understanding of mathematical concepts is crucial to making decisive analyses, and using them in news stories.
“That’s sort of the difference in taking one of our courses and taking a traditional statistics class. You’re taught how to use these analytical tools for journalism as a journalist, and with that the healthy dose of skepticism we apply to everything.”

At the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting David Herzog, an academic advisor says the challenge in teaching students CAR is helping them read the numbers without skewing them to fit what they want to find, and this includes using sources other than just data.

He says there is a real danger reporters will report without leaving the office.

“In the bridges database there have been instances where journalists have found bridges listed in really poor condition and then they went out to look for the bridges and found that the bridges either weren’t there or they had been knocked down and reconstructed.”

It is important to note, he says, that CAR is not reinventing the wheel – its roots were planted in the ‘80s – but the availability and sophistication is finally something within reach of most North American newsrooms.

He stresses the “A,” in CAR. Data is used to assist but not replace sources and documents used in stories.

“There’s no greater risk than when the telephone was introduced to the newsroom,” Herzog says. “With telephones there’s the risk that journalists can pick up the phone and call their source rather than getting out and talking with their sources.”

And now there’s a chance they may not even do that.