Teaching Strategies for Analysis in Computer-Assisted Reporting

Article excerpt

A useful assignment in ComputerAssisted Reporting (CAR) classes is a final project in which students take responsibility for applying CAR techniques to a set of data (database). Often, however, students do not know how to begin such an assignment. CAR classes typically spend a semester teaching very specific techniques, but do not do much to teach strategies for computer-assisted analysis.

Techniques for creativity could be useful in this endeavor. Data analysts should think: What could I do with this data set that would be interesting and informative? But it could also be useful to give more emphasis throughout the class to analysis strategies - general approaches that can be applied to CAR analyses of data sets.

This article provides some suggested strategies for CAR analysis that can help students and professionals move ahead when confronted with a database that they want to analyze or that they are expected to analyze. These strategies are based on our experience in teaching classes in both computerassisted reporting and research methods for several years.

By strategies for analysis in computer-assisted reporting we mean approaches to analysis that are general enough to apply to many data sets and that are capable of leading the journalist to significant and interesting conclusions. Strategies for analysis in computer-assisted reporting are at a higher level of abstraction than the tools of CAR - the particular computer programs and specific online resources that are emphasized in many CAR courses.

Textbook approaches

Textbooks dealing with computer-assisted reporting - like many classes - tend to focus on specific skills and computer programs rather than analysis strategies. Emphasis is on how to do rather than how to think.

For instance, Brant Houston in Computer-Assisted Reporting (1999) focuses on "the essential skills and information" and "step-by-step procedures that guide students through the complexities of commonly used software programs" (p. viii). The emphasis is on helping students "master the powerful tools of today's newsroom" (p. ix).

Lisa C. Miller's Power Journalism: Computer-Assisted Reporting (1998) devotes most of its space to Internet and World Wide Web resources. The rest of the book includes technique-oriented chapters dealing with spreadsheets, database managers, and working with data on floppies or tapes, and chapters on ethics of CAR and supplementing CAR with interviewing and interpretation. Overall, the book is intended to "guide you, step by step, through cyberspace, spreadsheets, and database managers" (p. vi).

Bruce Garrison's Computer-Assisted Reporting (1998) also focuses mostly on the tools of CAR - the techniques of using the Internet, accessing databases, using spreadsheets and database managers, and doing some analysis with statistical software.

Garrison's Successful Strategies for Computer-Assisted Reporting (1996) sounds like it is headed in the right direction, but it deals mostly with how journalists have actually used CAR. The emphasis is on case studies rather than presenting a typology of strategies from which the data analyst can choose. Most classes in computer-assisted reporting probably present students with numerous examples of data analysis, but this does not necessarily carry over to help them select the appropriate analysis strategy when presented with a new database. Several chapters of this book deal with software programs and online resources - essentially the level of tools rather than strategies.

Margaret H. DeFleur in her book Computer-Assisted Investigative Reporting (1997) comes closest to describing some strategies for CAR. She says the book "is not a `how-to' book in the strictest sense" (p. viii). The purpose of her book is to "describe the historical and intellectual development of a new area of practice in journalism" (p. viii). The book "develops an understanding of both the historical development and the analytical methodology of this form of analysis" (p. …