Friday, May 11, 2007
Computer-assisted reporting (CAR) is something we all think we do. A story is assigned and usually your instincts are to begin scouring the Internet for unverifiable statistics, unofficial records or through unorganized news archives.
According to Elliot Jaspin, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of Buried In The Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America, had he been "illiterate" he would not have uncovered the most under reported story in the 20th century.
Ever try to search through online census records? It's not the easiest thing to do, especially when you want to break it down to specific states, counties or cities. Earlier this month, Jaspin told a collection of the Golden Gate [X]Press staff that had he not known the value of CAR in investigating the racial cleansing in America, he might as well have been illiterate.
Much of the specific information Jaspin used in his reporting is kept in hard copy form and electronically by federal agencies. In order to access this information one must file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request letter, something that Talia (T-Dot) has blogged about before. If approved, that agency might send boxes upon boxes of records or digital volumes of those records.
Just imagine how far back census information can stretch. The federal agency, if they sent the information in digital volumes, certainly wouldn't send you digestible 'PDF' files. You'd be dealing with encrypted information that can only be sifted through by a computer.
What's standing between you and your Pulitzer Prize winning investigative story? C-A-R. Jaspin was able to create a simple program that organized the encrypted material so that it only gave him the information he was looking for. He then saw, in just minutes of research, that several counties in the South and up North had driven out their Black populations completely. He later found out that this cleansing had been done violently.
Since I feel I'm on the verge of boring you, I'll leave you with a few resources to learn more about FOIA, Jaspin's work, and Banished, a documentary by Black filmmaker Marco Williams, which is based on his and Jaspin's investigative work.
Are you illiterate? I’m embarrassed to say I am. But that will soon change.
- Elliot Jaspin’s book review by Creative Loafing.com – a good synopsis of the book and of Jaspin’s work.
- FOIA Resources – Sample letters when filing request letters, there are some links in Talia’s post as well.
- Banished – Marco Williams’s production company and the Center for Investigative Reporting (based in Berkeley, Calif.) put together an awesome documentary that has been shown at the Sundance Film Festival and has won one or two awards. Williams screened the film at San Francisco State University earlier this month and says it will air on PBS sometime in the near future.