Posted by: Ciaran | December 8, 2009

Becoming an authority

‘The world has become so complicated, the growth of available information so explosive, that the journalist needs to be a filter, as well as a transmitter; an organizer and interpreter, as well as one who gathers and delivers facts.’  So says Philip Meyer in the first chapter of the 2002 edition of his book Precision Journalism

Computer Assisted Reporting, or CAR, has been evident in the United States since the 1950s but is still only in its embryonic stages in the United Kingdom.  Without going into the number-crunching aspect in detail, it effectively involves using programmes like Excel and Access to inspect data and then draw conclusions from it.  Our lecturer here at CJS, Glyn Mottershead, described it succinctly when he said that using databases enabled journalists to “interview the information”.

Having the wherewithal and the sheer willpower needed to conduct one of these interviews is clearly going to make the difference when it comes to being innovative and successful in the field of journalism.  As The Poynter Institute says of CAR: ‘In the midst of all the pushing and shoving for a place at the news table, here’s a banquet of wonderful stories reserved for reporters who can use a computer to analyze data.’

So rich is this banquet, indeed, that some journalists are worried investigative sites based around user collaboration (often by non-journalists), such as Help Me Investigate, could end up leaving reporters without jobs as they don’t have the time to spend days on end conducting and crafting a detailed investigation.

I’d like to think James Ball is wrong, and that newsrooms will be tolerant of their reporters spending time interrogating data and coming up with great exclusives.  As he points out, data journalism stories are often: ‘incredibly complex, fraught with legal issues’.  The ability of a journalist to deal with complex information whilst negotiating the potential legal minefield should guarantee that CAR doesn’t spell the end of investigative journalism.

As Glyn said, CAR allows journalists to “assume the role of the expert” and “become an authority” on a subject; and as we keep being told by guest lecturers from Peter Preston to Robert Andrews, developing a specialism is integral to making a future in reporting.  We shouldn’t be afraid of CAR; it is a way to develop, rather than stifle, the role of the modern journalist.

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