Adding Basic Data to Beat Reporting

by February 8, 2016
Workspace by Grant

Supplement your reporting with some basic data. Photo by Flickr user Grant

Money and number stories exist across every beat, and with that lie opportunities to mine databases for solid numbers to support your reporting at state, or local levels. We spoke with Oregonian data reporter Carli Brosseau after a workshop she led, the News Hack Arizona training, for ideas on incorporating data in your coverage:

Where to find relevant data

Start by creating a list of questions you’d like to address in your day-to-day reporting. Identify the questions whose answers involve numbers or money. Reflect on where to get the numbers, and consider entering the data into a spreadsheet to create your own record database. When Brosseau worked at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, she worked on a team investigating Arizona’s controversial S.B. 1070 law requiring police agencies to inquire immigration status of an individual the police suspected was unauthorized to remain in the country. The team found law enforcement agencies were not reporting related incidents consistently, so they collected thousands of police records and build their own database. So, if an agency you’re reporting on lacks a dataset, consider compiling documents for analysis yourself.

If a government agency, at any level, regulates something, associated records likely exist which reporters can investigate for story ideas. Look at local and state laws to understand what information government agencies are required to collect and maintain. Also, mine agency websites like law enforcement, licensing agencies and building and planning agencies  for online forms.

Another way to assess what data government agencies or organizations collect is to look at their “database manager” job descriptions where available. If reporters can understand what proficiencies the agency needs to maintain public data, they can likely glean what the agency collects and stores. Requests for Proposal for database projects or database software updates can also detail what information the agency hopes to maintain through their databases.

Agency, trade organizations and research groups also collect and report on data they’ve collected through the release of reports. When they release findings, check out the footnotes or endnotes of reports to understand the source of the information, helping you make your own conclusions.

Brosseau also recommends researching information from doctors and lawyers. Reporters can mine case data — if offered by the professions — to build a picture of any phenomena these sources may have noticed when treating patients or building a case.

Finally, Brosseau recommends that reporters use additional data to contextualize the stories they’re seeing at the state or local level. Census data can help develop a per capita story, for instance, provide population insights, or information on wealth and racial demographics to supplement the data you’ve collected.

Now, what to do with all that data?

Once you’ve collected data, understanding the numbers can also feel daunting.

When making a data request, ask for a data-dictionary so you can decode what fields you’re looking at.

If you find a data set confusing, find the agency or organization staff member responsible for collecting and maintaining the records and databases. Reach out the group to help you understand the way they use the data. Check the online forms for a tech-support email address or number that people registering would use if they got stuck using the form.

Identify what information you’re looking at and understand the “records” collected (often they’re the horizontal information collected in the database) and the “fields” (the vertical information collected) that each record tracks. Try and use “database language” when troubleshooting to ensure you’re on the same page with the person helping you.