The whole idea of computer-assisted reporting (CAR), that is using databases to gather and analyse information which can then be used in a news story, might sound scary but it’s actually pretty useful.
Ok, so it involves numbers and statistics and scary new computer programmes, but when you see how useful it can be, there’s no denying that it’s worth it. And as our lecturer, Glyn Mottershead, pointed out, it’s no worse than standing on someone’s doorstep for three hours waiting for them to come home.
In fact, CAR is nothing new to journalism, and was used as far back as 1952 when CBS used a computer to analyse the results of the presidential election. There are now organisations set up to promote this kind of reporting, such as the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting in the US.
Of course, things have moved on a bit since then, and there is now more to CAR than just statistics. There are plenty of opportunities for online databases to add value to our reporting, as well as helping us to see connections we might otherwise miss.
There are some fantastic examples out there, including MySociety, which builds websites focused on democratic issues, such as TheyWorkForYou and FixMyStreet. Another great one is Who Knows Who, set up to keep a record of the links between various public figures, so if you were working on a story about Boris Johnson and wanted to know who he has been meeting up with, you can see it here.
But newspapers can also make the most of this kind of detailed statistical reporting. It’s easy to think you need the weight of a massive news organisation or a fancy computer system, but Louise Acford at The Brighton Argus proved this isn’t the case. She broke down crime statistics by ward to write this in depth crime report.
So it might be time-consuming but it’s not impossible. Like anything, once you master the technical tools, you can use them to improve your reporting and come up with stories you would never be able to write otherwise.