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Figure 17-6 The search screen for the Landings.com Website.

lyzed data from the National Transportation Safety Board. He said the data provided “a wealth of information about those who have died” in Piper Saratoga planes.

In an article for NICAR’s newsletter, Uplink, Lehren said the data “allowed comparisons of crashes involving instrument-rated versus visual flight-rated pilots.” Kennedy was only visual flight-rated. Lehren also analyzed service difficulty reports for planes from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), including air-worthiness directives, ownership records, registration records, and Aviation Safety System records.

While this sounds like a tremendous amount of material to check, Lehren said he worked with Dateline producers and correspondents to come up with breaking news and relevant information in the two days immediately following the crash.

Lehren also noted that an important lesson from this story is not to rely solely on Websites, but to make sure to have complete databases already inhouse. He said several critical Websites were down or missing crucial reports and records at the time he was conducting research about the JFK Jr. plane crash.

One of the best starting points for air safety is a site called www.landings.com, which provides a gateway into many databases (see Figure 17-6).

Notice the reports available pointed out by the cursor in Figure 17-6. These are the reports that Lehren examined, but Lehren also had ordered and received complete datasets before the crash and had learned how to analyze them. Journalists must be prepared ahead of time to cover an event on deadline.

Covering Beats

Many reporters check daily on Websites that relate to their beats or topics they cover. For example, a journalist reporting on Congress would make http://thomas.loc.gov a daily stop. That site carries extensive information on legislative bills and other information on Congress. To keep track of campaign contributions, the interested journalist would also check the Federal Election Commission site, www.fecinfo.com, to keep track of campaign contributions,

318Chapter 17 Computer-Assisted Reporting for Broadcast

and other nonprofit sites, such as the Center For Responsive Politics at www.crp.org. Broadcast journalists with CAR skills download information often on campaign finance to monitor and report independently on local politicians and their supporters.

A journalist interested in the environment and health would check the Environmental Protection Agency site, www.epa.org, and the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council site, www.nrdc.org. These sites contain information on pollution and efforts at cleanup. Reporters can also go to these sites to check on the environmental records of local companies.

If a journalist were keeping track of crime, he or she would routinely check the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) site, www.fbi.gov, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics site, www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs, for perspective and to look for trends and possible stories. Crime data is often downloaded and entered into a spreadsheet to calculate percentage increases and decreases in the kinds of crime.

Downloading Databases

A journalist should routinely download information from Websites. For example, journalists should regularly obtain information about their states and local communities from the U.S. Bureau of Census site, www.census.gov, and have that information on hand for stories. This site is a good place to find data for a multitude of stories, and it makes much of its data easy to download.

A search for median incomes for families of four in each state led to this location at the Census Website, shown in Figure 17-7. This information is in

Figure 17-7 A table of information is being downloaded from the U.S. Census Website by going to “File” and clicking on “Save As.”



a particularly friendly format—an HTML (hypertext markup language) file that can be readily opened by Microsoft Excel. (We will return to this file in the spreadsheet section of this chapter.)


Spreadsheets can help a journalist monitor changing information, look at salaries and budgets, analyze crime statistics, and track population figures. A journalist can quickly perform calculations with a spreadsheet because a spreadsheet can copy and apply the calculation to other numbers. A spreadsheet also can store the information, unlike a calculator, for later use.

Journalists often need to add a column of numbers such as salaries. With a spreadsheet, a journalist can type in a series of numbers and add them up with a formula. The spreadsheet makes this possible to do by giving every number an address like a map. The address is composed of the letter of the column and the number of the row in which the number itself is located.

In the example in Figure 17-8, the formula “= SUM(A3:A11)” was typed in A13. That formula means that all the numbers from A3 to A11 are added. Notice both the total and the formula that was typed to get the total. (The formula is just above the cursor in Figure 17-8.)

This capability is especially useful when a journalist is adding up hundreds of numbers. A spreadsheet has many ways of speeding up calculations, but one of the most valuable is the ability to copy a formula. If all the salaries in Figure 17-8 were to be increased by 5 percent, the total salary after the increase could be calculated by multiplying the number in A3 by 1.05 as shown in Figure 17-9. (The 1.05 gives the previous salary plus the 5 percent increase.)

Note both the formula and the number in B3. Also, note that the cursor has been turned into a narrow cross when placed in the lower righthand corner of B3. By double-clicking on the narrow cross, the formula is automatically copied down the column. This shortcut saves journalists

Figure 17-8

Adding figures in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.


Chapter 17 Computer-Assisted Reporting for Broadcast

Figure 17-9

Performing a percentage increase formula in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

Figure 17-10

Duplicating formulas throughout a column in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

(or anyone else, for that matter) an incredible amount of time (see Figure 17-10).

Using Downloaded Data

A journalist often doesn’t have to type in numbers, but can download them from the Web or receive them on a diskette. Let’s look at the downloaded U.S. Census Bureau data on the incomes of four-person families in the United States.

When the file is opened in a spreadsheet, rows and columns can be deleted or added. Then calculations can be done to put the data in perspective. In the worksheet in Figure 17-11, the increase from 1997 to 1998 has been calculated and copied for every state. The percentage change also has been calculated. Note that the increase in Arkansas (15 percent) was higher than in other states. The formula for that calculation (D15/C15) can be seen at the top of the worksheet.

To see the many other uses of Excel for journalism, we refer you to Chapter 3 in Computer-Assisted Reporting: A Practical Guide, by Brant Houston (2nd edition, 1999, Bedford/St. Martin’s Press).

Database Managers


Figure 17-11 Creating a composite spreadsheet for data analysis in Microsoft Excel.

Database Managers

A database manager takes more time to learn than a spreadsheet, but it is a powerful tool used by businesses and government agencies and now more often by journalists. With a database manager, a journalist can search tens of thousands of electronic records, summarize the records in seconds, and compare or match those records to records in another file.


To search in a database manager such as Microsoft Access, a journalist must “query” the database. A query can be done by filling out the equivalent of a form and specifying the criteria by search—very much like using a keyword on an Internet search.

Journalists often use databases for political campaign finance records. In this example, contributions in 2000 to U.S. Senator John Ashcroft, a Missouri Republican, were downloaded from the Web and placed in Microsoft Access. The data included the name of the contributor, the amount contributed, the contributor’s city and state of residence, and the contributor’s occupation. Note the names of columns of information in Figure 17-12.

One routine search that can be applied to this database is to see which contributors are not from Missouri. Rather than scanning through the data, a “query form” can be used to find everyone not from Missouri. The query form also allows a journalist to select which columns, known as “fields,” to look at. In Figure 17-13, the columns for name, amount, and state have been


Chapter 17 Computer-Assisted Reporting for Broadcast

Figure 17-12 Excerpt from a campaign contribution database created in

Microsoft Access.

Figure 17-13 Excerpt from the query form for a Microsoft Access database.

selected from the possible choices above, and the criteria “not MO” (meaning not from Missouri) has been typed in the state column.

The result when the query is “run” is a list of non-Missouri contributors, as seen in Figure 17-14.


A query in a database manager can also powerfully summarize data. Although it can be helpful to find individual contributors, trends can be spotted by obtaining total contributions from each state that is not the home state of the candidate.

Figure 17-15 shows an example of such a query. In this case, the contributions are “grouped by” each state and then totaled with the word “sum.” The result is also sorted by the highest amount to the lowest amount (in descending order).

The result of “running” this query shows that the largest amounts from out-of-state contributors came from Kansas and Texas (see Figure 17-16).

Database Managers


Figure 17-14 Results of a query run on a campaign contribution database in Microsoft Access.

Figure 17-15 Excerpt of a summary query in a Microsoft Access database.

Figure 17-16 Results of a summary query run on a campaign contribution database in Microsoft Access.


Chapter 17 Computer-Assisted Reporting for Broadcast

With this information, a reporter can now start asking why contributors from another state would give so much to Senator Ashcroft’s campaign.

Comparing and Matching

The ability to compare and match information from different files is the third major advantage of a database manager. The database manager can make matches depending on one or more criteria. In enterprise stories, journalists generally have to rely on several criteria to find possible matches.

In a query, matches of files of school staff and convicted felons would probably look like Figure 17-17, where the first names, last names, and dates of birth are matched to find possible felons working in a school system. The lines between the two files in the query are created by clicking on one column header and dragging it to the similar column header in the other file.

Building Your Own Database

Sometimes there is no data available, only hard copy. In this case, broadcast reporters have successfully built their own databases and entered data into them. One classic story was done by Karl Idsvoog and Corky Johnson when they worked for WCPO in Cincinnati. They constructed a database on time and attendance records of county election employees in Ohio. The reporters entered the data and found that Friday was not only the most popular day for employees to be absent, but that employees were often absent on that day.

It is not difficult to construct a database and enter data. In Microsoft Access, a “design view” window allows a journalist to give names to columns and decide what kind of data—text, numbers, or dates—can be entered into the database (see Figure 17-18).

Figure 17-17 Excerpt of a query comparing school staff and convicted felons in a Microsoft Access database.

Database Managers


Figure 17-18 A “design view” window for building a Microsoft Access database.

Acquiring Data

The federal government has an electronic Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and most state and local governments have similar acts or laws that permit the distribution of electronic information in the same manner as the distribution of hard-copy information.

When seeking electronic databases, however, a journalist needs to obtain some technical information. This includes a record layout (which looks like the database design in Figure 17-18), the format or language the data is in, the size of the data in megabytes, the number of the records, and the kind of medium (e.g., diskette, CD-ROM, computer tape) in which it will be delivered.

CAR Stories

Broadcast journalists have reported hundreds of news stories, many of them dramatic, using these techniques. Some CAR stories particularly lend themselves to high impact because the data can be summarized with a single shot, chart, or interview.

In 1999 in Atlanta, WSB-TV and the Atlanta Constitution-Journal joined forces and found almost 3,000 convicted criminals working in Georgia schools. Using the Georgia Open Records law, the station and newspaper obtained a database of school employees and of criminals. With the guidance of long-time CAR practitioner David Milliron at the Constitution-Journal, they matched names and dates of birth between the two databases and then used social security numbers to confirm the matches. To give the story a human angle, they began by focusing on the case of a football coach.

Here’s a transcript of the beginning of the story:



Channel Two Action News has learned that teachers or teachers’ aides in several metro area school systems have felony convictions on their records—and yet we found them still working directly with students.

These are just a few of the nearly three thousand school employees statewide we found with felony and misdemeanor records.


Chapter 17 Computer-Assisted Reporting for Broadcast

One is at a metro school already embroiled in a controversy involving charges against the head football coach.

[1] (ANCHOR)

Channel Two’s Richard Belcher has spent months investigating the backgrounds of teachers throughout the metro area.

He’s here with the results of his Whistle Blower Two special assignment.


(RICHARD) When the head football coach at Dekalb County’s Avondale High School was arrested on charges of sexual assault on a student, it turned out that Billy Ray Smith had already been criminally prosecuted.

Another story that cross-referenced two files to create a disturbing finding involved dangerous Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). At WBNS-TV in Columbus, Ohio, Paul Adrian, a CAR specialist, compared a database of all certified EMTs in Ohio to a database containing drunk-driving convictions in the state and another database of prison inmates. Adrian and his colleagues found 82 certified medics who had three or more drunk-driving convictions and a smaller group that had serious felonies.

State law prohibited people with alcohol problems or who had serious felonies from becoming medics, but officials did not check the backgrounds of applicants—despite a state law requiring background checks. WBNS-TV began its piece by looking at one medic, Jeffrey Crain, who had drunk-driving convictions and disciplinary problems. It continued by building its case:

And Crain is not the only medic getting DUIs on a regular basis. The I- Team found 6 EMTs in Ohio who have 5 drunk driving convictions . . . We discovered 3 with 6 DUIs . . . And when we asked the computer . . . How many medics have received 3 or more DUIs? The answer . . . 82.

One out of three of them does not currently have a valid driver’s license.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Our analysis also uncovered five people, able to get their EMT certification, who have been convicted of killing somebody on the road.

The story resulted in the removal of some EMTs from their jobs and a revamping of regulations.

Resources Needed

To start making use of CAR techniques, a reporter needs only a good personal computer with software that includes a Web browser, a spreadsheet, and a database manager. The reporter should begin with smaller stories as he or she works on building up CAR skills. The reporter also should find a colleague who is interested in these techniques and who is willing to check the calculations and queries done by the reporter.

For ideas about how to use CAR techniques, the reporter can check the Resource Center of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., www.ire.org/ resourcecenter, where examples of hundreds of stories that have used CAR are electronically indexed (copies of those stories can be ordered).

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