Snapshots from Our Blogs

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ICAR Blogs

By Doug Haddix, IRE training director

Students from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina blogged during this year's Computer-Assisted Reporting conference in Raleigh, N.C. The full blog, with loads of useful links and tips, is online at Here are excerpts to whet your appetite:

From "50 story ideas in 50 minutes"

By Sarah Frier

It's no secret that data is key to proactive journalism. And there are so many places we haven't even thought to check for it. Here are examples of places I hadn't thought of before, along with tips from jo Craven McGinty of the New York Times and Jennifer LaFleur of ProPublica:

* Immigration and Customs Enforcement referrals

* City and school district-issued credit card purchases

* Outstanding parking fine data

* Public payroll data

* City and county check registers

* Contracts and vendors (what the government pays for a project is not always what the contract stipulated)

* State and local lobbying records

From "Ready when the story breaks"

By Jessica Seaman

Maryjo Webster was driving home one night after work in 2007 when she got a phone call from her editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, telling her that the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis had collapsed. She turned around and went back to the newsroom, where she was faced with the daunting task of understanding data on a short deadline.

"If I had not had previous experience, there would have been no way I could do it on deadline," Webster said.

Webster and Fran Gilpin, from the Fayetteville Observer, led a session on how to be prepared to use data when a story breaks. Journalists must be familiar with the data before they are on deadline, Gilpin said. To start becoming familiar with data on their beats, journalists should first request a list of databases and record layouts from the government to get an idea of what is available, he said.

When a story first breaks, you look up data the first night but do the crunching to get a bigger story a few days later, Webster said.

Here are tips on preparing for a breaking story that needs data:

* Spend time researching what is available at the federal, state and local level and bookmark websites.

* Get to know the people who actually keep the data, not just the public information officer. Have them explain the data.

* Practice organizing and analyzing the data. If it is in a database, get familiar with the buttons and how to set up to get the results that you want, or import it into software you can use.

* Go ahead and write a story using the data now. It will get you familiar with the data in case news does break, while also doing a public service.

From Teaming up to tell human stories, without the clutter"

By Eddie Sykes

We tell human stories. That's the message investigative reporter Stuart Watson from WCNC in Charlotte and UNC-Chapel Hill journalism professor Ryan Thornburg want you to remember. "In TV and multimedia, we want to present a human story," Watson said. "There is a tendency in journalism to forget this."

It's the narrative that gives a story character, but it's the challenge of communicating that narrative on television that journalists can struggle with - especially in data-intensive CAR stories. That's why, Watson said, it's important of getting rid of the "clutter" that can distract the audience.

Easily understandable illustrations can help the audience comprehend the information faster and more effectively, but it's easy to go overboard. Keep your graphics and explanations simple and relevant, and get to the heart of the information, Watson suggested.

Investigative reporting has traditionally been a solitary occupation, but starting the CAR with a team approach can improve both the depth of the content and the overall efficiency. …