[insert tenuous automobile pun here]

17 12 2009

This term we have had a number of wonderful speakers talk to us about various elements of online journalism.

We have learned about blogging, digital storytelling and much much more, from names as diverse as Rory Cellan-Jones – who has years of expertise to fall back on – and Rob Andrews, who only recently graduated from the very same CJS course we find ourselves on now.

But for our penultimate lecture of term, we went back to where it all started – a stuffy lecture theatre in the law building and the wise words of Glyn Mottershead.

Not that I want to belittle Glyn’s teachings – far from it. For in this lecture he gave us an insight into the vital skill of Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR)

Gran Turismo

Although CAR has been a popular source of reporting in the US for some time, it is yet to board the ferry for Britain with any real authority.

Many have speculated on the reasons for this, although I will hazard a guess that Glyn’s comment that ‘It’s quite time consuming’ may have something to do with it.

Perhaps after missing the boat originally, British journalists have ascertained that the 24-hour news culture renders speed more important and 100% accuracy less so.

Or perhaps its the school of thought which came up with the statistically inaccurate assertion that there are ‘lies, damn lies and statistics.’

All that’s certain is I made 81.2% of these assertions up on the spot.

Breakdown cover

Like many things, CAR can be broken down very simply, but at the same time the process of dumbing-down is counter-productive if you don’t then expand back out to give a fuller picture. Confused(.com)? well you shouldn’t be.

CAR is about working out where you can find information, then evaluating, analysing and (finally) communicating it. Key to this process is our old friend the Freedom of Information Act.

And here is where things start to get a little more complicated, in terms of finding the information you need for that elusive scoop, that front-page splash that your editor wants you to provide.

Steering you in the right direction

When making a Freedom of Information request, if just ask for an answer to your question that will only get you so far.

If, on the other hand, you ask for documents relating to the issue you want to cover, this will potentially get you much further.

Sure, it might require more work on your part, but researching and using all the available information is all part of the job, right?

Take, for example, the Labour government pledging an extra £300 million for childcare. On the surface an impressive-sounding, headline-grabbing number. But CAR helps us tell a different story.

It can tire you out

What is £300 million? Well it’s just a number. The figure was pledged over a 5-year period, so to work out how much it amounts to per year, you need to divide by 5.

Then divide by 52 to find out how much will be pledged per week.

Then work out how much that is per child – here is where the Freedom of Information request comes in.

Long story short, the seemingly extravagant £300m equates to only £1.15 per child per week.

How did I get to this answer? I got there by CAR.

On the road

So, that’s about as much as I know so far, but I think I can speculate that CAR will grow and grow quickly.

After all, most of us at CJS have already expressed an interest in learning more about it and developing our existing skills. And we’re some of the best budding journalists in the country, right?

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted, but for now I’ll leave you with this gratuitous post, a video from a legend of modern music whose words single-handedly brought down the Berlin Wall. Why don’t you come along for the ride?

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