Cynics would say "precision journalism is an oxymoron, like unbiased opinion or civil war. But precision is an ideal to be sought in journalism, though not often achieved.
As defined by Knight Ridder reporter Philip Meyer in his groundbreaking 1973 book of the same name, precision journalism is the use of the tools of social science to replace, or at least supplement, reporters' time-honored methods of citing anecdotal evidence and doing educated guesswork. Today, thanks to Meyer's call, I'm one of hundreds of investigative reporters who have crafted serious stories using such tools as survey research, statistical analysis, experimentation and hypothesis testing. It's social science done on deadline.
As it happens, I got a glimmering of these methods even before I discovered journalism as a career. In my freshman year at Dartmouth in 1966, I slogged my way to a so-so grade in calculus, the last math course I ever took. I remember little calculus today, but I did learn something my professor, John Kemeny, had coauthored two years earlier: the computer language BASIC. I thought it very cool that I could peck a few lines of English-like instructions into a teletype machine and seconds later a mainframe computer somewhere on campus would calculate precinct-level vote percentages for my American Government homework.
However, it was 15 years later before I got a chance to start applying such methods to my journalism. The problem was that much of what Meyer recommended could best be done with a computer, which during the 1970's meant big-iron mainframes that only universities or corporations could afford. It was …