Reporting with computers–Some doubts from a founder

Q&A: Reporting with computers–Some doubts from a founder

Sullivan, Margaret

Some Doubts from a Founder

Philip Meyer is seventy years old, fond of professorial bow ties and known as the father of computer-assisted reporting. He holds the Knight chair in journalism at the University of North Carolina. But his elder-statesman status doesn’t mean he has lost his edge. His talks still pack the halls whenever investigative reporters and editors meet, and the attendees include plenty of twenty-something computer experts. Meyer’s ahead-of-the– curve reputation began with his contribution to a Detroit Free Press study of that city’s deadly 1967 race riot. Wielding a then state-of-the-art IBM 360 mainframe, Meyer – then a national correspondent for Knight Newspapers – analyzed reams of survey data. His work revealed that, contrary to popular belief at the time, the college-educated were as likely to riot as high school dropouts. Thus began computer-assisted reporting – now all the rage. But Meyer scoffs at that term, preferring “Precision Journalism,” the title of his 1973 book, reprinted this year. And he thinks reporters have a long way to go if they’re to become true precision journalists. Meyer spoke about all this with Margaret Sullivan, editor of The Buffalo News. How has your view of “precision journalism” changed in the era when newsrooms have a PC on every reporters desk?

It hasn’t changed at all. It’s still a novel idea that I’m trying to sell and having great difficulty doing it. Pieces of it have been accepted. At first, it appeared that precision journalism was computers and if you used computers you were a precision journalist. But the computer is just a tool. You can be a precision journalist and not use computers; and you can certainly use computers and not be a precision journalist.

You think the phrase “computer-assisted reporting” then, is invalid?

I was critiquing a couple of prominent investigative projects that used computers, and one of them said – very high up — that this is a computer-assisted reporting story. It just shows how naive journalists are to think that using computers is a big deal and we ought to tell everyone about it. My cousins in Michigan use a computer to manage their farming operation, but when they go to market they don’t pull up to the unloading dock and say, “Hey, I’ve got these computer-assisted soybeans.”

What are the biggest mistakes you see in computer-assisted reporting today? What makes you cringe?

Computers make it possible to screw up on an even-larger scale. For example, in The Kansas City Star’s series on the high incidence of AIDS among priests, the most obvious flaw was that it compared priest deaths from AIDS with the general population. But all Roman Catholic priests are males, and males have a much higher death rate from AIDS than females. The Star did report the male-to-male comparison, but it was buried deep in the story. Sure, it’s a journalistic tradition to give scary but misleading information in the lead and then backpedal, but the backpedal was way too late, and the spurious comparison was beyond the range of reasonable exaggeration. The computer is a wonderful tool but it greatly increases the need to start thinking like a social scientist in approaching a topic – knowing when to sample, when to run field experiments, where to apply statistical controls. I don’t cringe so much at misuse as at missed opportunities, things done halfway.

As you look back over several decades of technological change in newsrooms, what have we learned?

Computers can be useful to large numbers of reporters and therefore reporters ought to learn how to use them. Instead it’s become a specialty where one person in the newsroom does all the heavy-duty computing. I think journalism deserves better than that. I think we need to raise the ante on what it means to be a journalist.

So a different kind of training is necessary?

For too long, journalism has been a refuge for people who have a math phobia. In the information age, it takes greater skill to collect, manage, and interpret data than a typical journalist’s training can provide. They need knowledge of survey research, field experiments, programming, a heavy dose of statistics, and how to apply scientific reasoning to investigative projects. Some minimum level of competency in quantitative methods ought to be an entry-level requirement.

What work comes to mind as embodying the best of the new techniques?

I’m afraid I’m like a musician with perfect pitch. Even in the best stuff I can find flaws. For example, a wonderful example of precision journalism is work by Steve Doig [now a professor at Arizona State] at The Miami Herald showing the relationship between the year that a house was constructed and the amount of damage done by Hurricane Andrew. The theory he was testing was that houses were strong when the hurricane code was first passed in the 1950s, but then enforcement became careless and corrupt over time. Recent houses were less able to resist the hurricane than the older houses. What he didn’t do was apply statistics to control for wind speed in order to show, to a finer degree, how damage increased with recency of construction. He made the basic point, which was the important journalistic thing, but I would have loved to have seen it done with even greater precision.

What can your approach bring to the future of investigative reporting?

It depends on a broader definition of investigative reporting than putting somebody in jail or getting somebody out of jail. It involves looking at structural problems in society that public policy isn’t dealing with effectively. journalism is very good at covering events, fairly good at finding patterns or trends, and not so good at looking at structure. This is where a social science approach can help. You can see how a system operates and look at the causes of the problems. Doig’s hurricane story was an example of going beyond event and pattern to structure. There was a societal problem, corruption in the building-code enforcement, and it led to more hurricane damage than was necessary. Only when we think like that can we do the kind of investigative journalism we really need.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism May/Jun 2001

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