There’s a joke in reporting that one person’s an anecdote and three’s a trend. It’s not really funny, though, because too many stories rely on this metric to prove something’s happening or happened. There’s a better way, it just takes some digging, maybe a FOIA request, and some minimum database skills (which is another topic, but if you’re really serious look into IRE’s training or if you’re still in school, take a computer-assisted reporting course, which your school ought to require).
By analyzing databases on topics on your beat you can find the real trends and back it up with statistics. Your job as a journalist is to make those numbers and statistics meaningful. (But don’t force the story, sometimes the data doesn’t support your hypothesis. It hurts, but it happens.)
Here are a few places you can find data that will help you support your stories with facts instead of trends.
Data.gov —This site will probably just overwhelm you with the sheer quantity of information. The hard part will be picking through what’s there for what’s relevant. But you can find some interesting federal government data, including everything from military marriage trends to consumer spending to climate change, if you dig. You can sort by the type of data, the department that collected it, the category, location, topic, and more. At least try a few searches to see what’s what — and whether it leads to or fits in any of your stories.
The Census — The grand daddy of data. You can find lots of great stories in these, from the changing face of your community (does it skew more female? has the minority population bloomed or waned? how many single-parent households? what’s the median income? etc.). There are probably millions of stories in the 2010 census as well as the American Community Survey. All you need to do is think of a topic and then look for data related to it. The bureau even does some of that for you, with frequent fact sheets and story ideas. (Full disclosure: I worked as an office clerk in a local field office during the 2010 count.)
Bureau of Labor Statistics — Who’s working (or not working), who’s hiring (or downsizing), who’s spending (and what do things cost), etc. That’s the type of information you’ll find these government data sets. It’s not like the economy is a hot topic these days, right? (Obviously it is. And here’s your insight.)
National Center for Education Statistics — As a former education reporter, I can tell you that next to my state’s Department of Education (Indiana DOE had a surprisingly robust data site), this U.S. DOE databank was my go-to source for trends in education. I often found numbers to sprinkle into other stories about everything from school lunch to discipline to graduation rates. There’s a ton here.
Bureau of Transportation Statistics — Writing a story about transportation? About travel? About cars? About safety? You can find a ton of useful information and surprising statistics in the data on this site, which highlights everything from tarmac times to baggage fees to what kinds of hazardous materials are being shipped through your area.
Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse — This awesome, evolving collection of databases culled from decades of FOIA requests covers everything from terrorism to drugs to IRS filings. The site aims to “provide the American people — and institutions of oversight such as Congress, news organizations, public interest groups, businesses, scholars and lawyers — with comprehensive information about staffing, spending, and enforcement activities of the federal government.” Take advantage of their work and find something related to your beat or your community. It’s not all free, but it might be worth it.
IRE Database Library— The Investigative Reporters and Editor’s cache is deep and well developed, plus they’ve already done the hard work of collecting and cleaning it up for you. But the data can be pricey, and you can’t buy it unless you pony up for an IRE subscription. Look through their listing and you’ll find everything from traffic accidents to election finance. Chances are there’s something on your beat you could use. If you can’t afford the data, at least peruse the list for an idea of the types of databases you could request in your city/state. Be sure to look at the bottom of the page on each database, which includes references to stories completed using the data and tipsheets about how to use it. These stories may be able to point you toward a story of your own.
I could actually go on and on with data sources. I won’t because that would spoil the fun of the chase for you. If you must find more, here’s a great resource from the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism to get you headed in the right direction with some ideas not already included above. Also, Jack Lail has an old but useful collection of discussions about database journalism, for those less familiar with the topic.
But here’s the best hint: Ask your local governmental agencies, whether it’s a public university or the county, what kinds of databases they keep. Pepper them with requests for ones on traffic tickets, outstanding property taxes, salaries, etc. If you’re lucky, much of this info is already on their website — along with lots of story ideas you wouldn’t think to query. For example, I once wrote an interesting story about starting school before Labor Day, which is a perennial topic in Indiana politics, by examining the calendar of every school district. That year, the data — which I had stumbled on on the DOE site in search of something else — showed that out of about 300 districts the number starting after the holiday could be counted on my fingers. Start stumbling around the agencies and people you cover to see what sorts of data you can uncover sitting out in the open. If you need help requesting something, plug your info into the FOIA Letter Generator.
Many news organizations make a show of collecting databases and putting them online in data ghettos, where they may draw hits from users who can’t really do much analysis or don’t have the know-how, time or desire to make the information informative. The role of the reporter and editor isn’t just to share this data and information but to make it meaningful. To do that, you have to get your hands dirty with data. Now you have no excuse to ever come to work without something to work on.