Computer Databases Can Be Valuable Sources

TECHNOLOGICAL change has revolutionized newspaper production within the professional memories of most mid-career journalists. Now the newspaper industry is facing another wave of change, this one affecting the way newspaper articles are actually researched. The new technology - called database journalism, or computer-assisted reporting - could bring newspapers to a new level of activism in their reporting.

At a recent conference at the Gannett Center for Media Studies here, David Bright Burnham complained that during this century, reporters have served ``mostly as stenographers,'' except for the pre-1913 muckraking years and a period from the mid-1960s through the Carter years. Even reporters to whom sensitive information is leaked are basically ``stenographers,'' he adds.

Mr. Burhham is in a position to know: He is a longtime investigative reporter who used computer-assisted reporting in his book, ``A Law Unto Itself: Power, Politics and the IRS.'' Although the use of computers is relatively new, he has for years been using statistical analysis to prove that what ``everybody knows'' isn't necessarily so.

``We can be held captive to `event coverage,' he says ``Instead, we should be asking these questions: `How do key institutions function? Or what stops them from achieving their stated goals?'''

The new kind of reporting involves, essentially, the creation by newspapers of their own databases, drawing on computer tapes of public records: of drivers' licenses, for instance, or the mortgages issued by a state housing finance agency.

Once in place, these databases can be analyzed to find out, for instance, whether the people to whom the housing agency is making ``low-income'' mortgages really are in that category. Or the database can be used secondarily - driver's license listings can help find people unavailable through the telephone directory.

Elliott Jaspin, formerly of the Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin, now of the University of Missouri at Columbia, has done considerable work with computer-assisted reporting. He told the Gannett group that computer techniques allow news organizations to ``maintain control of the news agenda by maintaining control of the analysis.''

Mr. Jaspin shared some examples of his own researches: In 1985, there were three episodes of Rhode Island children killed by school buses rolling forward when supposedly stopped. A tragic coincidence?

Jaspin said he went into his database and discovered that some of the school bus drivers had 10 to 20 traffic violations on their records, and that some of them had evidently been selling drugs. After the newspaper published its investigation, the authorities acted to remove some of the drivers, and there were no more incidents.

Computer-assisted reporting is not easy. And it isn't cheap. Newspapers must surmount the technical challenges of obtaining government records, typically so-called nine-track tapes run on mainframe computers, and then adapting them to personal computers. Reporters will need sophisticated technical support.

Susan Long, a statistician at Syracuse University who has worked with Burnham, notes, ``The kind of data that are easy to get from an agency is data about others' behavior, not the agency's own behavior.'' And once reporters start asking for a particular series of data, they may find ``that series has been discontinued, or changed from monthly to quarterly, or something like that.''

Overwhelmingly, though, says Burnham, the biggest difficulty for newspapers wanting to pursue database journalism is ``cultural'': Reporters tend to be word people. If they have to deal with numbers, they want someone else to interpret them, he says.

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