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Journalism has seen many evolutions-advocacy, gonzo, investigative and new journalism have all made their impact. But it’s precision journalism which may bring about the biggest change. Any journalist can join the movement. All it takes is a computer.
Finding the unfindable is one goal of precision journalists. Adept statisticians, they are motivated by calculating precise estimates and don’t flinch at terms like “null hypotheses”
or “chi-square.” These journalists realize that computers are not just glorified typewriters but highly sophisticated investigative tools.
You don’t have to be a math whiz to understand computer databases. Computer-assisted reporting, or CAR, revolves around the use of spreadsheets. This software lets users analyze numbers to locate trends or questionable figures.
But the onslaught of information circulating in the 1990s has caught many newsrooms off guard. Each day more numerical data is available. Polls, surveys and records offer lengthy details about legal, medical, economic, geographic, social science and technological areas, to mention a few. Knowing what to do with the data is the essence of precision journalism. Seven of the past 10 Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting were awarded to reporters who used CAR. “The Color of Money” was a 1988 series written by Bill Dedman for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. By using CAR, Dedman and his computer team cross-indexed federal computer records of home loans with federal census tapes and revealed racial discrimination in mortgage lending. Nine days after the series was published, Atlanta’s largest banks poured $77 million in loans into black neighbourhoods.
It was a big story. But where are Canada’s precision journalists? We’ve been slow to catch on to the wave of change. Our newsrooms haven’t used computers for very long, let alone for extensive investigation.
We have less access to information than in the U.S. Dean Tudor, Ryerson Polytechnical Institute’s information resource instructor, says it would be a “quick leap” for Canada to jump on the precision journalism bandwagon. But we need the data. It’s expensive to buy and interpret. Our government doesn’t like sharing computer tapes. Tudor believes we can push for tape access using American law as precedent.
Some people are pushing. Last November, a federal court judge rejected the federal government’s argument that their public opinion data on the constitutional debate should be withheld from the public. The Globe and Mail, Southam News and The Canadian Press along with access-to-information researcher Ken Rubin took the clerk of the Privy Council to court to release the data.
That’s one victory in a long battle for Rubin. Currently Canada doesn’t have what Rubin refers to as “democractic hardware/software capability.” He advocates the right of public inspection and the premise of open government. What we need in Canada is a monitoring agency like the Electronic Democracy Association in the U.S., Rubin says. CAR is about asking the right questions and knowing what to look for, according to Jock Ferguson, investigative reporter for the Globe. The first step would be to ask Statistics Canada for their “raw” data. To this point, no one has done that, Ferguson believes.
Sandra Ramsbottom, a Statistics Canada communications manager, believes that Statistics Canada’s raw data would not be clearly understood by the media. ‘Deadlines and the lack of practice at reading numbers inhibit most journalists. It’s this numeracy problem that hampers the discovery of many stories trapped in endless numbers.
Statistics Canada has a database called CANSIM, offering a range of subjects. “Dogbites, marshmallows, GDP, it’s all there,” says Ramsbottom. “There’s not a chance we wouldn’t have information on a story you’re working on.”
Trish Crawford, feature writer for The Toronto Star uses experts to help interpret data she uses in stories. Crawford is cautious around numbers. One story she wrote dealt with the most dangerous jobs in Canada. Figures showed that manufacturing had the most fatalities, but a closer look revealed that the forestry industry had the most deaths in proportion to the number of workers. Precision journalists never stop questioning the numbers. “All data is dirty,” says Dwight Morris, Los Angeles Times editor of special investigations. It’s not a comfortable thought to realize your story may depend on data punched into a computer by a clerk hired at seven dollars an hour.
The Montreal Gazette is one of the few Canadian newspapers that uses CAR. But Gazette reporters are “journalists, not sociologists,” says William Marsden, assistant city editor in charge of the investigation team. He sees the computer as a tool only and uses data as an aid to support the research, not as a source of stories.
All of Quebec’s court system is now on computer tape. The Gazette won the rights to the tapes after taking the Justice Department to the Access to Information Commission. Gazette reporters can now study trends in sentencing and frequency of crimes.
In time, Canadian reporters will become more familiar with precision journalism. As well, with a stronger commitment to freedom of information by Canadian media, more data will become available.
It’s time to catch up-to the past. Precision journalism actually began in the late 1960s as part of the new journalism movement. Maybe the journalists of the 1990s will embrace this computer technology, pushing buttons they’ve been avoiding, to better document the stories of our times.

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About the author

Deborah Robert was a Senior Editor for the Spring 1993 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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