Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Better than investigative reporting?

Hunting down bad guys and exposing corruption will always be a central mission for journalists. But will it always be the most important one? Is it now?

Matt Thompson argues in "The Press' New Paradigm" that helping people grasp the meaning of the complex information that defines contemporary life may be the highest calling for journalists these days. In an age when Enron's misdeeds went unchallenged because they were buried in complexity few could penetrate, he may have a point. I read a book not long ago called "Data Smog" that makes the telling point that bad information -- like polluted air -- can be toxic.

I encourage you to click through to Matt's essay and then come back for some discussion in the comments here. These are important questions.

But data modeling instead of gumshoes? Man, talk about revenge of the nerds.

– Howard Weaver


  1. Computer-assisted reporting was all the rage about 15 years ago. I recall attending an IRE CAR boot camp in Missouri around 1994, about the same time the Web was booting up.

    That was complicated stuff back then: getting government agencies to give you data on anything other than a reel-to-reel tape (or, god forbid, paper). Doing queries and sorts weren't easy for journalists, even those of us who felt reasonably comfortable with the technology.

    Today, we don't even talk about computer-assisted reporting. It's like telephone-assisted reporting. Reporters deal with spreadsheets and databases all the time. It's almost as second-nature as "Googling" someone for background info.

    Is this data modeling? Will it bring down the next Enron? I don't know the answer, but I think reporters today are better equiped than they were during Watergate.

    An interesting aside: One of my beloved J school profs, Dr. Lyle E. Harris, often argued against FOIA because he thought it was easier for reporters to dig out information Woodstein style than go through the paperwork involved to get what you want. He also thought it was easier for a government agency to hide information that was requested via FOIA. Not sure I still agree with Lyle, but I see his point.

    When it comes down to it, people like to tell secrets. That's how Watergate broke. That's how most investigative pieces break. We can datamine all day long, but if we want the juicy story, we need to bug the hell out of sources until they give us what we want.

    I think this puts me squarely in the data-modeling gumshoe camp.

  2. He can speak for himself, but what I think Matt is arguing is that although reporters may be better equipped to gather information, they're not adequately skilled to understand or -- more tellingly -- to present it.

    What data modeling in the nature of chicagocrime.org does is provide accessible portraits of data, corridors of access down which audiences can travel ont heir way to understanding. Writing a standard five-part, 10,000-word series about crime in Chicago neighborhoods just wouldn't (and couldn't) do what this does.