Five Tips For Using Census Data In Money Stories

by June 9, 2015

The census offers a wealth of information online that you can use to find and report on money angles. Knowing how to access and use census data is important for adding depth to a story.

Last week, investigative reporter Evan Wyloge conducted a workshop on using census data to unearth and report on investigative business journalism stories at the 2015 IRE Conference in Philadelphia.

Here, we present five tips from his presentation on developing stories with census data in your money reporting.
1. Know where the money is in census data.
The Census Bureau website organizes data reports into a number of topics, including business, economy, employment and income, and poverty. It’s a great place to start your research and find in-depth data for a story. In addition, supplementary reports that are related to more specific topics are released regularly on the Census Bureau’s website.

In fact, just last week, the Census Bureau released the New Housing Characteristics report with interesting housing data on things like contract price and the type of financing used for sale.

Knowing the code series for specific tables within a topic makes it easier to find data as well. You can find tables on public assistance in the B22XXX series, for example, and those on poverty in the B17XXX series. Take a look at each series for the specific information you can get.

2. Stay up to date on data with the census calendar and email releases.
You can use the Census Bureau’s events calendar to stay on top of important and upcoming updates. You can also sign up for email updates straight from the bureau and never miss a release.

3. Use census data tools to find money faster.
Use Census Reporter when looking to find and crunch recent data. The website has information from the Census Bureau that is easy to navigate so you can quickly find information that you need for a story. American FactFinder, on the other hand, is the place to go if you’re looking for complete datasets that go farther back in time. The website can be more complicated to navigate. It helps to know what codes you’re looking for, as we said in Tip No. 1, so you can use the advanced search tool to find them quickly.

4. Merge census data over time.
Fusion tables are a powerful tool that reporters should add to their repertoire. Fusion tables allow you to merge several datasets from different years. This is one way to see how data has changed over time. Go further, and merge fusion tables with geography files and you can create visuals that show change over time for a specific area. Wyloge provided three exercises at the presentation that you can use to learn more about using fusion tables.

5. Use census data to check political claims.
While you can use census data for a number of angles when reporting on money, one of the best applications is to evaluate claims by politicians. FactCheck.org used data from the Census Bureau to look at presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s claim that he raised average family income by 50 percent when he was the governor of Arkansas. They found that, when adjusted for inflation, the number was closer to 10 percent. Politicians and businesses like to use statistics, so it’s good practice to look at their numbers and keep them honest.