Data Journalism for Business Reporting


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Jaimi Dowdell presented computer-assisted reporting tips during the free Reynolds Center workshop, "Be a Better Business Watchdog -- CAR for Business Journalists," in Missoula, Mont. on Oct. 6, 2012.

For more information on free training for journalists, please visit

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Data Journalism for Business Reporting

  1. Jaimi DowdellIRE/NICAR
  2. Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. is a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting.IRE was formed in 1975 to create a forum in which journalists throughout the world could help each other by sharing story ideas, newsgathering techniques and news sources.
  3.  Training Resources Networking Conferences Data services
  4. •Assume it’s public.•Assume it’s free.•Documents = databases.
  5. Why data?
  6. More and more, records are kept electronically. We can use them to…
  7. Uncover basic information. (Simple lookups)Test government procedures, regulations and officials’ promises.Enterprise reporting – do stories that no one else is doing.In addition: Journalism that has data elements translates incredibly well online.
  8.  Examples The basics of spreadsheets Searchable databases available online Finding and downloading data online Other databases that aren’t so readily available Quick online data visualization tools
  9. Star Tribune (Minneapolis)Pioneer Press (St. Paul, MN)Data: National Inventory ofBridgesFindings: Following thecollapse of an I-35 bridgespanning the Mississippi River inMinneapolis, journalists,including Dan Browning andMaryJo Webster, turned to theNational Bridge Inventorydatabase, available from IREand NICAR, to check thebridges inspection history. TheStart Tribune and The PioneerPress reported that inspectiondata from 2005 showed that theMinnesota Department ofTransportation deemed thebridge “structurally deficient.”The Pioneer Press also noted afederal reporting finding thatMinnesota had 3 percent of itsbridges rated deficient in 2006.
  10.  FINDINGS: Highlighted the insufficient rules for credit-reporting agencies to correct errors, Americans are left virtually powerless to erase the mistakes. Documented the plight of thousands who, through no fault of their own, have been denied the chance to buy a home or a car, take out a loan for college, rent an apartment, land a job, join the Armed Forces, receive medical care or even open a checking account.
  11. DATA: tax-lien sales, foreclosures from foreclosure- tax-lien data.FINDINGS: Bailed-outbanks bought$16 million in tax liensin the sameneighborhood wherethey were foreclosinghomes.
  12. DATA: workplace safety inspectionsFINDINGS: Workers in many dangerous industries get a smallfraction of the attention from inspectors that constructionworkers do.Two of Washingtonsmost injury–proneindustries getAlmost no attentionfrom workplacesafetyinspectors:Nursing homes andHospitals
  13. “ESPNs "Outside the Lines" reviewedhealth department inspection reports forfood and beverage outlets at all 107North American arenas and stadiumsthat were home to Major LeagueBaseball, National Football League,National Hockey League and NationalBasketball Association teams in 2009. At30 of the venues (28 percent), more thanhalf of the concession stands orrestaurants had been cited for at leastone "critical" or "major" health violation.Such violations pose a risk for foodborneillnesses that can make someone sick, or,in extreme cases, become fatal.”
  14. Milwaukee JournalSentinelData: State hunting andcorrections dataFindings: Analyzingstate data on huntinglicenses, Ben Poston ofthe Milwaukee JournalSentinel found thatdozens of convictedfelons in Wisconsin wereissued gun-deer huntinglicenses last yeardespite a state law thatbans them for life frompossessing firearms.Felons with armedrobbery, rape andweapons convictions allbought gun-deerlicenses in Wisconsin in2006. A state legislatorproposed law to closethe license loophole.
  15. Online
  16. Herald Tribune (Sarasota, FL)Data: The newspaper reviewed more than19 million Florida real estate transactionsto determine how much of the real-estatebust had its root in housing fraud.Findings: The year-long investigationfound that more than 50,000 Floridaproperties flipped under suspiciouscircumstances from 2000 through 2008.Those flips artificially drove up housingprices and tax bills and contributed to thecrush of foreclosures that has gutted thereal estate market. All over the state,professional property flippers madebillions in profits on the back of concoctedland deals.
  17.  The difference between a spreadsheet and a database. Why use other software? Options?
  18.  Remember – any time a biz interacts with the government, information becomes public. Ask for the document and/or data retention schedule.  Missouri, Montana Get a tour. Grab every blank form – both internal and external – in all agencies you cover. Meet the document and data clerks and the IT folks.
  19.  FOIA – Open records logs State and federal statutes Appendix and footnotes to audits and reports  Inspectors General  State auditors  GAO reports (Government Accountability Office)  Canada – Auditor general
  20.  Major Information Systems – request a list from government agency: example US Marshall’s list here. Something in a “chart” format may mean that a database exists: example California West Nile Virus here.
  21.  Online forms to submit information: example Wisconsin Insurance Complaint form here. Actually read a web site – don’t let it force you into predefined roles: example North Carolina Department of Revenue here. (site map, search)  Search for keywords related to data: download, database, information system, submit, searchable, inspection, enforcement, Excel, etc.
  22.  OSHA workplace safety inspections Federal contracts (FPDS) (ex. Border protection) Recalls (look at tabs for topics) Economy at a Glance from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Local Area Unemployment Statistics from the BLS EPA environmental data searches
  23.  Fatality Analysis Reporting System data (FARS) National sex offender registry (Department of Justice) Transportation data from BTS Aircraft data (service difficulty reports, on-time data, aircraft registry, etc.)  NTSB Aviation Accidents (and more)  FAA accidents/incidents and service difficulty reports (SDRs)  Flight tracker from flightaware  On-time statistics
  24.  Nursing home, hospital and home health data from Medicare Firearms data from the ATF Migration data from the IRS Tax data from IRS (tax exempt orgs) Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) National Agricultural Statistics Service
  25. Consumer Reports (pdf report) •On-time by airport (pg 7) •Departure by time (pg 13) •Chronically delayed flights (pg 15) •Tarmac delays (pg 25) •Mishandled baggage (pg 29) •Injuries and deaths involving pets (49)From Bureau of Transportation statistics(Downloadable to Excel)•Flight delays•Bag fees by airline•Chronically delayed flights•Cancelled flights
  26.  American FactFinder for quick data profiles. Datasets from IRE– download profiles, comparisons and more. Get information on the Census from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and IRE.
  27.  Fedstats – A to Z list of statistical data from the government. – Searchable catalogs of government data. (search for business, contracts, inspections, etc.) or – Federal spending data including grants, loans, contracts, etc. (Ex. Coca Cola)
  28.  State Government Databases wiki from the American Library Association BRB Publications links to public records sites
  29.  Search by domain:  .gov – government sites (other types: .edu, .org, .com, .net, etc.)  Example – search for “Oil spill” “2010” and limit to Search by file type:  .xls for spreadsheets; .txt, .csv for text files; .mdb, .dbf for databas files  Example – Same search as above but limit to filetype:xls Search for words within a URL:  Examples: ftp, download, data, inspection, enforcement, 2010, etc.
  30.  In Excel format – example IRS Exempt Organizations here. From the web – example California West Nile Virus here. In text format – example from search on “inspection” here. PDF to Excel – try
  31.  Our datasets are “cleaned.” All have national data. Some are sliceable by state. They are typically large – meant to be handled in a database manager and not a spreadsheet. (We can work with you on that, though.) Some examples…
  32. HMDA, enacted in 1975, requires all banks, savings and loans, savings banks and credit unions with assets of more than $33 million and offices in metropolitan areas to report mortgage applications.Track subprime loansLook for discriminationFind changes in your area since the housing crashLook for trends
  33. Data contain loans made to businesses and individuals as disaster assistance. The data identifies the borrower, the disaster, the amount and, for business borrowers, whether the loan was paid in full or deemed uncollectible.Which disasters have hit your community hardestAre there any people/businesses who’ve received multiple loans?What’s the biggest loan?How much hasn’t been collected?How much won’t be collected?
  34.  How frequently are bridges being inspected? How old are they? What is their government-assigned status: 1=Structurally Deficient;2=Functionally Obsolete; 0=Not Deficient; N=Not Applicable What are the sufficiency ratings of bridges in your area?Doesn’t seem like a business story? Think again. Look at areas that havegrown quickly and have lots of development. Are dams/bridges that werepreviously thought harmless now in an area of dense development? Howdoes that change things?
  35. IRS Tax Exempt Orgs database•Get a list of all of the nonprofits in your community•Find the biggest ones•Find the ones the generate the most revenue•Find the ones that generate the least revenue•Use this information to investigate individualnonprofits•Example – Atlanta spreadsheet•Get individual 990s from Guidestar or FoundationCenter
  36.  Federal Contracts IRS Migration NAFTA Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) Local contracts Toxics Release Inventory Campaign contributions
  37.  Dozens of national data sets for local enterprise stories Links to stories based on each data set Links to tip sheets on using the data Find more information at
  38. Some simple online tools
  39. Example: Michigan CAFOs
  40. Jaimi