Broadsheets and spreadsheets
Jack Gillum '06
Database Editor, USA Today
It was long dubbed an open secret in Arizona's education system: Over and over again, failing students still skated along to the next grade. But how? It was tricky for education reporters to move past the he-said/she-said details. Was the scandal mere conjecture? Were grades being inflated? And just how could journalists examine kids' academic records?
Elsewhere, in higher education, critics of major-college sports programs long derided the ballooning dollars funneled to athletics, particularly football. What critics didn't know, however, was where the funds were coming from—often from taxpayers—and even powerhouse schools received public handouts.
Both were fodder for in-depth news stories. Yet, until recent years, reporters had few tools to pry answers loose.
My colleagues and I labor away in newsrooms because we love asking the hard questions. And while the shoe-leather approach—ambush interviews, press conferences, phone chats—has long been part and parcel of reporting, it doesn't get everything.
As a student, my eyes glazed over when I was subjected to social science research methods, had to lumber through statistics software, or even needed to organize information into a database; today, those tools are often essential in finding a story that few have told.
Such was the case at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, where I and a team of reporters pursued public records for months, asking schools for all of their students' grades. It took weeks to sift through and clean up millions of records, from a 6th-grade algebra score to an 8th-grade chemistry midterm. The results? By gaining a first-ever look at individual grades, we found students repeatedly received failing grades in key classes (like English and math) but were still being pushed along each year toward graduation. The phenomenon—dubbed social promotion—was one that was hard for educators to ignore.
The same tricks apply to universities. At USA Today, my colleagues and I scanned tens of thousands of documents detailing more than 200 public schools' athletic department budgets. Through our programming and statistical analysis, we found that even the largest football programs received millions of dollars from taxpayers—and that the figure has been climbing for years.
The challenge for journalists, particularly those at newsrooms with shrinking budgets, is gaining access to information that increasingly is digital. I've too often been denied public-records requests because of "proprietary" databases, or because officials didn't know how to retrieve information in the first place. Unfortunately, it might take lawyers (and months of persistence) to get those records. If a newspaper is running on monetary fumes, a lawyer might not ever appear in the picture.
Computer-assisted reporting has become essential to modern newspaper investigations. It's how reporters in Boston found minorities were more likely to get a speeding ticket than a warning (it wasn't by chance), or how a team of journalists in New York discovered CEOs backdating their stock options.
However the media landscape evolves this decade, journalists will be called upon to sort a spreadsheet or analyze a database—perhaps just as often as they will need to make a phone call to the mayor's office.
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