Class: J-314 Computer-Assisted Reporting


Required: Computer-Assisted Reporting: A Practical Guide, 2nd Edition, available at the IRE offices, 138 Neff Annex


Recommended: The Reporters’ Handbook: An Investigator’s Guide to Documents and Techniques, available at IRE offices


Web site:


Instructors: Jeff Porter



        Jennifer LaFleur



Office hours: Jeff Porter – 138 Neff Annex, Thursdays, 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; 1:30-3 p.m. only

          Jennifer LaFleur – 138 Neff Annex, Thursdays 9:30 a.m.-noon only


Course Description:  “Computer-assisted reporting” refers to the analysis of public records that are stored electronically instead of on paper. This course teaches how to examine computerized records by using a spreadsheet and database manager.



I.                 Students are expected to attend all scheduled class sessions.


If you must miss a class for an excused reason (refer to the Journalism School’s attendance policy), notify the instructor in advance and make arrangements to submit missed assignments. Otherwise, late assignments will be docked points for each day past the due date.

During class, students are encouraged to ask questions and participate in class discussions.


II.                Data analysis: Select a database to analyze, either from a list of provided data or from data that you have obtained. If working from data that you obtain, you must have it in hand at the beginning of the course, along with appropriate documentation.


Write a three- to five-page story memo that begins with the leading paragraphs for your proposed story, which should be based on your data analysis. This opening should be written as a piece of journalism (not as a research paper); and it should include as much information as your data analysis yields. The remainder of the paper should include the elements listed below; all sources of this information should be properly noted, either in footnotes, endnotes or parenthetically within the paper. (For example: Annette Craven, “City loses $1 million to housing scam,” The Millboro Holler, 11 Dec. 1999)


1.      Research, cite and summarize the laws that govern the collection and use of your data set. The point is to understand why this information is collected, how it is intended to be used, and whether there are published guidelines that you can apply to your data reporting.


Possible sources:

FindLaw (

Lexis-Nexis ( 

Thomas (

Internet Law Library (

National Archives and Records:

Many other links on the NICAR Net Tour (

The MU law library (You can actually look this stuff up in books!)

The Web site of the agency that keeps the records


Tip from recent NICAR-L posting: A state’s annotated code book may provide summaries of case law that may be more revealing than the statutes because you can see how the law has been applied.

2.      Search for and summarize clips and literature for other stories that have been done using this data.

3.      Look for reporting or research projects that outline methodologies you can adapt to your work.


Possible sources: Scholarly literature; downloadable tip sheets from the IRE Resource Center; IRE contest entries, which include detailed how-to notes; watchdog groups; the NICAR-L listserv archive; statutes -- laws that establish the collection of data may outline how the data are intended to be used by regulators and may therefore serve as reporting guidelines

4.      Verify/reconcile your data, using the code sheet, record layout and, if possible, a sample printout of the data. Describe your findings and outline the pitfalls for using the data. Be skeptical and be thorough; do not guess -- if you don’t know for a fact what something means, find out. If there are things that you do not understand and ultimately cannot explain, list them along with your questions about these elements.

5.      Submit an audit trail of your queries. This should include your SQL queries along with a sentence or two describing what you were trying to discover and what your query revealed.

Good habit: Record your record count each time.

6.      Identify experts to consult as you report your project.

Possible sources:
The expert links on the NICAR Net Tour



7.      Outline what else you would need to do -- research, reporting, etc. -- to complete this project. Estimate the time and cost.

8.      For bonus points: Find other sources to verify your findings. This might include finding other agencies that collect this data and using them to confirm your work, searching news clippings for reports that will confirm or discredit your findings, and obtaining the paper reports from which your electronic records are generated.


Hints: It is useful to find out how a system works, and why it is in place. For example: If data is collected, why is it collected? Are there other forms or reports that must be submitted, apart from your database, which are relevant to your reporting? If rules are broken or procedures are violated, what action is taken (investigatory, disciplinary, etc.)? Who else collects this information? What do they use it for?


III.              Data negotiation: Identify an electronic data set that you would like to have and try to get it. PLEASE NOTE: Downloading data from the Internet does not fulfill the requirements for this exercise. Also, remember that you are negotiating for public records. It is not acceptable for this assignment to promise not to use the records. The point is to function as a journalist in your negotiation.

State specifically what records you are negotiating for and for what purpose.


Research, cite and summarize the appropriate freedom of information laws. This may be the federal Freedom of Information Act, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, your state’s open records law, local sunshine laws or a combination of these.


Your state’s home page (Missouri’s is

Lexis-Nexis (

Freedom of Information links:

Your local press association


1.      Create a database in Access tracing your data negotiation. You should clearly identify the data that you negotiated for and the agency in charge of the records, followed by a summary in your own words of the applicable portions of the appropriate freedom of information law(s). Your fields should include at least:







2.      In addition, submit copies all correspondence, including e-mail.

3.      If you are able to obtain the data, you should also obtain the appropriate documentation: Record Layout, Code Sheet, Record Count and, if possible, sample print-out of the data plus the paper form from which the electronic records are generated.

IV.             In-class assignments: Each class session will begin with a lecture and conclude with an in-class assignment, which should be completed and submitted by the end of class, or at a time indicated by the instructor.


V.               Homework: Additional exercises may be assigned as homework. These assignments are due at the beginning of the next class, or at a time indicated by the instructor.


VI.             Readings from “Computer-Assisted Reporting: A Practical Guide” will also be assigned as homework to coincide with data lessons. Refer to the class schedule for reading assignments.






Class participation --- 25 percent

Data analysis -- 25 percent

Data negotiation -- 25 percent

Homework or in-class assignments – 25 percent


Assignments will be evaluated on several levels, including:

1.      Technical skill – the ability to use the software to construct correct formulas, queries, etc. If a result is recorded on an answer sheet but the work is not preserved in the appropriate spreadsheet or database, points will be deducted. Incorrect formulas and/or queries will result in lost points even if a correct answer coincidentally results despite a technical error.

2.      Reporting skill – the ability to accurately record findings; in other words, if your spreadsheet is correct, but your answer sheet is wrong, points will be deducted. If an answer is not recorded at all but it exists in the spreadsheet or database, points will be deducted.

3.      Communication skill – the ability to verbalize findings, usually in the form of writing one or more paragraphs at the conclusion of an assignment based on the data reporting. These paragraph(s) are to be written as newspaper or broadcast stories and must employ journalistic standards and style. Grammar, spelling and punctuation count.


To earn an A or a B, you must demonstrate a mastery of basic spreadsheet and database skills; complete all projects to the specifications described above; submit accurate homework assignments; turn in all assignments on time; do not plagiarize or commit other acts of dishonesty; and fulfill the remaining requirements outlined in the syllabus.



The Portfolio: The semester you are to graduate from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, you will be required to submit a portfolio of your work. From this course, plan to submit your data analysis and data negotiation projects.


Academic Honesty: The School of Journalism is committed to the highest standards of academic and professional ethics and expects its students to adhere to those standards. Students are expected to observe strict honesty in academic programs and as representatives of school-related media. Should any student be guilty of plagiarism, falsification, misrepresentation or other forms of dishonesty in any assigned works, they may be subject to a failing grade from the course teacher and such disciplinary action as may be recommended pursuant to University regulations.


Academic misconduct includes some of the following: extensive use of materials from another author without citation/attribution, extensive use of verbatim materials from another author with citation/attribution, extensive use of materials from past assignments, extensive use of materials from assignments in other, current classes. For in-class exams, academic misconduct includes conferring with classmates, copying/reading someone else's test and using notes and materials without prior permission.


Classroom misconduct includes forgery, obstruction or disruption of teaching, physical abuse or safety threats, theft, property damage, disruptive, lewd or obscene conduct, abuse of computer time, repeated failure to attend class when attendance is required and repeated failure to participate or respond in class when class participation is required.


The University's M Book Rules and Regulations regarding student classroom conduct and deportment, academic misconduct including plagiarism and falsification will be followed. Classroom misconduct will be reported immediately to the Graduate School or the office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. Academic misconduct allegations will be reported immediately to the Provost's office.


It is possible that some of these guidelines may be waived under special circumstances, so, if you wish to avoid problems, please ask in advance.


ADA: If you have special needs as addressed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and need assistance, please notify us immediately. Students with disabilities must register with the university’s Office of Disability Services (882-4696) and make arrangements in advance for specific accommodations. We will work with the Office of Disability Services to accommodate your needs.


Religious Holidays: Students are excused for religious holidays. Please let us know in advance if you have a conflict.