Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Reinventing the News with the Boston Globe

Journalists become journalists because they like words--not numbers. And their aversion to numbers soon becomes a fear. The longer they don't use math, the more they think they can't compute numbers. Soon even trying to figure out how much you owe for tip at a restaurant becomes a challenge. But statistics and percentages are used powerfully in news reports every single day. This week, Boston Globe reporter Matt Carroll spoke to my online journalism class explaining how the newsroom thinks he is a math wizard simply for doing basic Microsoft Excel functions, and I'll take a look at three databases that could make for news stories.

My eye first jumps to the Boston homicide map, an interactive platform displaying the location and frequency of murders for 2007. I zoomed into the area I live, known to be unsafe in certain sectors, to find that in the last year there were very few murders. Creepily, though, the map combines the information on those killed and even in some cases their picture on a clickable map item. Using this map, if a large number of homicides happened in one area, a reporter could put a face on these crimes and bring them together to start a safety initiative.

Next I looked at gay marriages in Mass. for 2005. Obviously, Provincetown was up there with 660.4 wedded gay couples per 100 heterosexual couples, but other unheard of towns like Leverett (150) and Pelham (200) had high rates of gay marriage. Then I looked at Real Estate Value Estimates to see how these town's real estate values compared with towns that had low rates of gay marriage. For these two databases, if the evidence was there, a reporter could make a connection between real estate prices either rising due to the growing amount of gay couples or the gentrification these wedded couples could be bringing to these small towns (now just speculation). So if you chose to be a journalist to get out of crunching numbers, you're out of luck. The future, I'm told, is database journalism.

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