TIPS FROM THE REPORTERS
Using Data for Investigative Reporting
(Adapted from materials by Jennifer LaFleur)
Journalist Jennifer LaFleur was instrumental in reporting The Dallas Morning News' "Road Hazards" series, creating and analyzing databases that showed serious problems in the trucking industry. LaFleur is the computer-assisted reporting editor for the News. She works on the investigative team and directs newsroom efforts to produce stories based on data analysis. She has held similar positions at the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Before joining the News in 2003, she held a Media Law Fellowship with The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, D.C. She has taught journalism at the University of Missouri and American University. She was the first national training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, an educational organization based at Missouri. She is co-author of a book on computer-assisted reporting and has won awards for her coverage of disability, legal and open government issues. She is on the board of directors for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
Whether you're covering an accident or another event or topic, using and creating your own databases can help you tell a better story. Here's why:
1 Databases give you more to the story. Rather than writing based on a few analogies, you'll know about the whole population or all of the accidents or all of the crime incidents.
2 Your best analogies are in the data. The people you need as examples or organizations that illustrate the point of your story are part of what you'll find as you sift through your data. Data analysis doesn't just mean finding overall numbers – it gives you a huge list of possible subjects for stories.
3 Contrasts are in the data. Because you have an entire "population," you have the highs and lows so you can compare the various ends of the spectrum.
4 You know what an "outlier" really looks like. When newspapers analyze school test scores to see how schools perform, the interesting stories are in the "outliers" – the schools that don't fit the pattern. You can only find these statistical trends by analyzing the data.
5 You have more powerful figures that weren't just fed to you by a government agency.
6 You can make connections you might not otherwise be able to make.
7 You have authority. By doing your own data analysis, you're producing the research, not just rehashing someone else's work.
8 You have at hand tools to do your work better and provide insight. For example, you can use mapping tools, which allow you to analyze and represent data geographically.
Read the original data-based reporting and watch the full EXPOSÉ episode about The Dallas Morning News reporters and their investigation online.