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Data Delver: Phil Meyer

Posted by on Apr 5, 2010 in Blog, CAR, data delvers | 2 Comments

Using programming to enhance and improve journalism is often thought of as a new phenomenon — the rise of the pro-jo, or programmer-journalist. But as anyone in the CAR community can tell you, using computers for reporting is far from a new idea. One of the pioneers of the movement, decades ago, was Phil Meyer. He was profiled in Newsweek as one of the original journalists performing computer-assisted reporting. He also literally wrote the book, simply called Precision Journalism, on how to use numbers and statistics to help the truth shine through. His writings are nothing less than required reading for anyone curious about this subset of journalism, with which every reporter should be familiar.

As an aspiring programmer-journalist, Meyer personifies the very reason I love using data for journalism — it gives us the facts that hold up the truth. Society demands nothing less from the stories we impart, and I know I think of Meyer’s writings nearly every day. Back in February, the now-retired University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor took the time to speak with me. Hopefully, he’ll inspire you like he’s inspired me.


This profile of Meyer is a part of my continuing series I’m calling “Data Delvers,” where I pass on summaries, quotes and audio clips from conversations with journalists using technology to find, analyze and convey data-driven stories and/or projects to the modern audience.

Pioneering computer-assisted reporting

There was a time when the term computer-assisted reporting meant something special. The very notion of “regular people” using a computer was brand new. Journalists embraced this technology before they could just Google how to make it work. One of the first investigative reporters to use computers to dig into data was Phil Meyer. He used database techniques to enhance his analysis and practice journalism that lived up to the standards applied to the social sciences.


Journalism education should include math

Meyer created a test that he thought all students should have to take to earn a journalism degree at Chapel Hill, where he taught for many years. All students took a spelling test. There was a certain minimum requirement to be admitted to the school, and a higher minimum requirement to graduate. The test required about a sixth or seventh grade level proficiency in math.

For Meyer’s part, he taught several courses at Chapel Hill, integrating math into many of them. Many members of the CAR community remember Meyer’s precision journalism class, which he taught for decades. ” I think in the 24 years that I taught, the interest declined,” he said. “If you want to study without learning math, at this school you go to the art department, not the school of journalism.

Precision journalism

Meyer said he believed so strongly in the technique of bringing quantitative analysis techniques to journalism that he had to put his thoughts down on paper. “It was just something I had to get off my chest,” he said. This resulted in a book called “Precision Journalism” that showed how statistics, the scientific method and databases could be applied to journalism.

Meyer cited Steve Doig’s work at the Miami Herald as some of the earliest pieces that made the most of providing valuable information for using computers and databases for analysis. “Steve Doig did some programming that let users go online and compare their property values with those of their neighbors and look at the different characteristics that led to those evaluations, and then they could make up their minds whether they wanted to challenge theirs. That’s pretty useful,” Meyer said.

He also praised the USA Today series “The Smokestack Effect,” awarded the first place 2009 Philip Meyer Journalism Award at the most recent NICAR conference in Phoenix in March 2010. “It brought two databases together, and drew conclusions that weren’t obvious to the naked eye.


Pro-journos serve a necessary function

Programming-journalism was how Meyer first discovered precision journalism, just as it’s how many journalists discover the power of data-driven presenation. Meyer said the difference is he used coding more for analysis, while modern pro-journos focus more on presentation, but both sides are highly essential. “It doesn’t do much good to develop complicated information if you can’t get it into the consumer’s head.”

Don’t do programming just to do it

Audio: Just because you can, that doesn’t mean you should.Data: Just because you can, that doesn’t mean you should.

When new technology combines with journalism, sometimes there’s a tendency to use it just to show off, Meyer said. He said that this might happen again, just as it did when computers first became accessible to journalists. “When there is a new technology like that,” he said, “people will use it just to use it, and maybe forget the journalistic purpose of it.”



Extended transcript

For more of Meyer’s thoughts on precision journalism as practiced in the modern era, read on.

When did you stop teaching at Chapel Hill, and what were you teaching in your last classes?

I retired July 1, 2008, and my last course was advanced reporting, which when I teach it, is basically precision journalism.

What did you see in terms of people’s motivation to abide by the standards put forth in your book, Precision Journalism? Has it gotten lower, higher, stayed the same?

The idea was pretty radical when I wrote the book, and there was pretty rapid acceptance, and then there was a leveling off. I think in the 24 years that I taught, the interest declined. If you want to study without learning math, at this school you go to the art department, not the school of journalism. I never did succeed in persuading my faculty colleagues to have a standardized math test be one of the conditions for graduating. We did have a standardized spelling test that everybody had to pass. In fact, they had to pass it twice. They had to get one score to get into the school, and a higher score to graduate. I would have liked to have done the same with math.

How advanced would such a math requirement have been?

About sixth or seventh grade math. In fact, I have online the sample of the math test I would have given.

When you wrote the book (in 1970), where did you expect the precision journalism movement to be by 2010?

I had no idea, it was just something I had to get off my chest. And I was encouraged to write it by the Russell Sage Foundation, which had a slightly different agenda. It was mostly run by sociologists, and they were interested in the application of quantitative methods to sociology, which was just then getting a big boost from computers. And they thought if journalists used these methods, then they would appreciate quantitative sociology better.

Do you think the prevalence of computer programming in journalism nowadays helps with precision journalism?

The higher-level languages are essential. In fact, that was how I got started was with one of the very early higher-level languages. It was called Harvard Data-Text, and it was a forerunner to SPSS, and without that, I’d have been sunk. SPSS, of course, is written in Fortran, and Fortran translates to the assembly language, and that translates into the basic machine language. Harvard Data-Text would have been as popular as SPSS is today, except it was written in the IBM 7090 machine language, in order to conserve computer time, which was very precious then. That meant when the 7090 became obsolete, they had to start over again and write it for the next generation of computers. They lost a lot of time, and SPSS pulled out ahead of them and became the standard for academic, statistical computing for a long time.

As one of the first people to use a computer to do journalism, what do you think of the modern trend of the rise of the programmer-journalist?

It is new in that the programmer-journalist of today is less interested in data analysis than in presentation, and that’s an important area, too. It doesn’t do much good to develop complicated information if you can’t get it into the consumer’s head.

Do you think they should also be looking at data analysis?

Well, yeah, but this is an age of specialization. I’m not sure everybody should be able to do everything. We need good managers now to coordinate all of those specialties.

What’s your overall impression of the computer-assisted reporting you are seeing coming out of the media now?

Oh, it just keeps getting better.

What are examples of some of your favorite recent projects?

It isn’t that recent, but one of the best of all time was Steve Doig’s examination of the relationship between destruction and Hurricane Andrew and enforcement of building codes. The hurricane building code was enforced just before I first arrived in Miami as a reporter in 1958. I remember the house my wife and I bought was one of the first built under the code. Then, as time went by, corruption and carelessness made the code weaker and weaker. Doig noticed that newly-built houses were much more badly damaged than old houses. I checked that out myself. I was headed to South American for a day, and I stopped in Miami and looked around. I went by my old house, and it was in incredibly good shape. There was a fairly new development a few blocks away, and it was devastated. So, Steve was able to document that with maps and statistics. He was a SAS programmer, and it was a very compelling story, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Now, there was a time when the Pulitzer board would not award a prize to a story that was based on computers, because they figured that was cheating.

When did that stop?

I think the first to win the prize was Bill Dedman’s “The Color of Money.”

Why did they decide to allow it?

I think it just became more accepted as a standard reporting practice. I guess if everyone used an aluminum pole in pole-vaulting, then it wouldn’t be a problem.

What’s your reaction to the movement of uncontextualized databases?

I have mixed feelings about that. I’ve seen some stuff that’s just using computers to show off. One example that I hated the most was a newspaper examined public records on traffic arrests and looked up the blood alcohol content so they could identify the state’s drunkest driver and go interview him. I can see using data like that to look at trends and patterns, but to pick out someone for ridicule doesn’t seem like a good idea. When there is a new technology like that, people will use it just to use it, and maybe forget the journalistic purpose of it.

Was that something you saw happening often?

I haven’t seen very many recent examples. But as computer techniques become more and more powerful, we might be in for another wave of that. Now, it’s possible to look at public records and dump them on to the Internet in a way that’s useful. Steve Doig did some programming that let users go online and compare their property values with those of their neighbors and look at the different characteristics that led to those evaluations, and then they could make up their minds whether they wanted to challenge theirs. That’s pretty useful.

What are your reactions to the three stories that won the Phil Meyer award this year? Are you pleased with their quality?

Oh, yes. One was the story that won the Grantham Prize award, I was on the jury for that, although I had to abstain because of my previous relationship with USA Today. That was a really nice piece of work because it brought two databases together, and drew conclusions that weren’t obvious to the naked eye. The schools were placed where the pollution was, it wasn’t pollution going where the schools were, evidently because land in those areas was cheaper.

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  • http://dicasdeumfucador.blogspot.com Marcelo Soares

    Phil Meyer is THE man. Finding a dusty, unread edition of “The New Precision Journalism” in my j-school’s library changed the way I see journalism. That’s 12 years ago, in the south of Brazil. You’d never guess how proud I was when he answered the first email I sent him, in 1999. Since 2003, I’ve been teaching some data tricks in newsrooms and journalism courses all over Brazil, and I always leave some minutes to tell about Phil Meyer’s protagonism. You should see the faces of 40-something journalists who say “computers are for kids” when I show Phil was doing that when they couldn’t read, feeding punched cards into refrigerator-sized mainframes. Four years ago, when I got a national journalism award with a database of profiles of Brazilian congressmen, with all kinds of public data that were available, it was with gratitude that I sent our guru a pic of the ceremony, with a frame saying “Thank you, Phil”. He not only inspired my early data delvings – he also gave insight to the rough idea before I presented it to the institution that accepted to move it forward. I said before and I repeat: Phil Meyer is THE man. I didn’t have the opportunity to be his student in person – but his writing is so clear that I could learn a lot from that. (Okay, Phil, I know you’re reading this, so don’t blush.)

    [Reply]

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