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Men and machines

December 10, 2009

Just when it seemed the only thing holy left in journalism was that at least human beings are doing the leg work. Whether the results are printed or posted, we still held the quill and we still pulled the strings. Well, enter CAR – computer assisted reporting. Now, i’m not one for drama, but it seems inevitable that in about three years all news reporting will be done by the News-a-troninator 3000, no? I’m being facetious. In fact this CAR lark is quite a useful, empowering tool for journalists.

More-so for long term projects or investigations as its ability to conjure up graphs, charts, and what-not is second to none. For those of you do not know what CAR entails, you should be on this course – we’re all well clued up. Just kidding. It is the analysis of statistics by programs such as MS Excel, My SQL, MS Access, and other silly acronyms to produce manageable results. Basically, you can run any data you want through these programs and come out with a product that any human brain could analyse. This is the computer bit, so failing the ineptitude of the controller, it will normally do its job.

The tricky part lies in sourcing the data, wrangling the data, and generally knowing what you want when you begin. CAR is much bigger in the US because freedom of information is much bigger in the US. Much of CAR is used to work with information found out through Freedom Of Information requests. For this reason, journalists must be trained to use this integral act to its potential. Appropriate questions must be asked and in the right direction, however, one must not ask for the answer, one must ask for documents relative to the answer.

This is vital. If you want to know who the most corrupt politician in the North West is, they may very well turn round and tell you it is Mindyour Ownbusiness MP, however, if you ask for expenses forms etc. and do the research yourself, you can come to your own conclusions on the issues you want to highlight. Knowing the ins and outs of the Freedom of Information act is as, if not more, important than understanding CAR. Once you have worked the data and CAR has done its job, the trick is communicating the data; turning the data into a story.

Now we return to the man in the newsroom. The man who chops wood, smokes cigars, and fights over meat with other men. Yes, the alpha journalist. He, or she, writes up the story to singe the eyebrows of the stunned public, sits back, and waits for rapturous applause. Well, not quite, but you catch my drift.

Contrary to the luddite-inspired introduction, CAR is nothing to be afraid of. It is to be embraced. I have not put the FOI act to the test but when I do CAR will be the first thing i consider, well, second, after finding someone who knows what MS SQL, then back to CAR. Though internet-burdened-computer-machines may be threatening the old ways of the newspaper, this computer-related-analysis-buffer could well give power back to the hacks.

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