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Precision journalism today

How do you get your ideas for news stories? Through police reports? Twitter? Trusted sources?

Journalists come up with all different strategies to get the lead on a story, but whether it be waiting for a source to call or a tweet to spark your interest the process is passive.  Patience is a virtue, right?

But what if we didn’t have to wait for a lead? What if we could create the news? I’m not saying to go provoke an incident just for the story, but actually create a news story from what you already have at hand.

That’s exactly what Stephen K. Doig does: he creates the news.

During the half forgotten days of mainframes and tape readers, Doig and his colleagues turned coverage of a hurricane into the unearthing of major building code violations.  If he could do that in times where few newspapers could afford such technology, imagine what we could unearth with the endless technology that has fallen at our finger tips.

Satellite imagery, mapping programs, Microsoft Access and Excel, and readily available databases have made precision journalism a possibility for all reporters.

As Doig said, these are an “empowering set of tools to learn.”

Interested in following in Doig’s footsteps? Here are some tips to get you started in computer-assisted reporting:

  • First, check out Doig’s “What Went Wrong” to see how statistical analysis and hypothesis testing can work itself into a Pulitzer Prize winning piece.
  • Get acquainted with Excel.
  • Know which databases will serve you well over and over, like the property tax database and Census 2010.
  • Be relentless. You may even meet obstacles when trying to obtain a public record, but you need to show them you are not going to back down easily.
  • Always interview the people you are reporting about; confront them about the data you found.
  • When it’s time to turn it into a story, focus on one big number or pattern.  Don’t let the data clutter the story. You can show the rest of the data in a table on the side.

It takes education and dedication to become a precision journalist.  Not everyone can do it. So, use the tools that have been given to you and go create some news.


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