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Database Journalism

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Matt Carroll

Matt Carroll of the Boston Globe came to explain the concept of database journalism to our class. Carroll, an admitted computer nerd pointed out that working with numbers is something that journalists typically don’t like. Seeing as journalists tend to be more English/History versus Math/Science, Carroll understands where they’re coming from, but emphasized the fact that great stories can be found by just examining raw data.

“Data can compare people and towns and then lead to questions as to why things are the way they are,” he said.

Carroll’s first example was regarding a story he did on the topic of gun licenses in Massachusetts. After analyzing all the data he was able to plot his findings. Among the plethora of graphs, Carroll went with a map of Massachusetts with all the information available by county by just scrolling over that section of the map. He also pointed out that the graphs you decide to use vary on the information you’re trying to portray–Carroll recommended many-eyes.com, a great web site, which offers an extensive array of graphs for a given project.

Unfortunately, for all the benefits of database journalism, there are some perils attached. You have to be careful, he said, because you may sometimes mess up the numbers and then the results won’t make sense. He used an example of car accidents by hour that he did. Carroll couldn’t figure out why there were so many accidents occurring at midnight–the he realized he’d mixed up 12:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m.

It’s little mistakes that are treacherous to a journalist working with databases. “It’s all about the numbers, and you have to be careful with them,” he said.

Written by lhpious

March 31, 2010 at 7:45 pm