Computer-Assisted Reporting in Classrooms: A Decade of Diffusion and a Comparison to Newsrooms

Article excerpt

A decade ago, DeFleur and Davenport compared computerassisted reporting in newsrooms and classrooms and concluded that journalism faculties seemed content to follow in the footsteps of a more innovating industry - the newspaper industry.1

The pattern by which an innovation (such as a new technology, idea or practice) spreads through a social system has been welldocumented and follows a classic Sshaped curve of adoption over time. Five distinct categories of adopters and also the "approximate percentage" of individuals included in each category have been described, based on the degree of their "innovativeness" (innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards). These classifications can be used to understand the process by which computer-assisted journalism has become part of newsroom practice and classroom instruction.2

In the early 1990s, newsrooms were in the "late majority" stage of implementing some computer-assisted reporting techniques such as online database searching and in the "early majority" stage of implementing the analysis of government records. Meanwhile, classrooms were in the "innovator" stage of working with public records and in the "early adopter" phase of using online sources. The academic adoption curve represented a clear case of innovation lag in comparison to newsroom usage.'

Some of the problems impeding the adoption of computer-assisted reporting in the classroom were lack of finances, equipment, instructors and interest. Indeed, 70% of journalism program directors across the country

indicated they had no plans to offer online searching skills, while 62% did not plan to offer instruction on analyzing government records.4

In the intervening years, interest in computer-assisted reporting has grown. Journalists using computerassisted reporting have won numerous Pulitzer Prizes; several Web sites and listservs with hundreds of members are devoted to the discussion of computerassisted reporting; and groups such as the National Institute for ComputerAssisted Reporting (NICAR), Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), The Freedom Forum and the Poynter Institute offer annual seminars on computer-assisted reporting for reporters and faculty. Indeed, professional organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) have advanced considerably the professional development of their members since the mid-1980s when John Mollwitz suggested and headed SPJ's first Technology Task Force and administered its first forum (in JFORUM) on CompuServe, and Davenport and Don Wallbaum developed AEJMC's first forum, AEJMC-FORUM, also on CompuServe.5

In addition to an increasing interest in computers, the economy grew throughout the 1990s. Almost every newsroom in the country installed computer equipment that enabled journalists to use computerassisted reporting in all stages of the reporting process.6 Also, an increasing number of textbooks were developed, helping professionals and faculty to become more competent at computerassisted reporting.7

And, importantly, much of the world's information is becoming computerized. About 93% of all data and information in the world is produced in digital form, according to a study by students in the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkeley. By the year 2005, some think it will become possible for the average person to access virtually all recorded information.8 For journalists to be watchdogs of government, they must know how to access, retrieve, organize and communicate in a digital information environment, using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), database managers and spreadsheet or statistical computer programs. That early training should take place in their college classrooms.

Study Goals

Although computers are used in every stage of the news process, from gathering information to producing and disseminating it, this study focuses on the first stage-using computers to gather information. …