Ball State University
Race relations and changing demographics in the U.S. are some of the biggest topics in newsrooms today.
During a panel discussion, journalists from The Associated Press, USA Today and The Washington Post focused on the importance of informative datasets on changing demographics, race, ethnicity and other prevalent topics that can be localized in communities around the country.
The panelists have focused on how race relations are evolving in the United States, economic differences among different races and law enforcement interactions that are leaving questions about police brutality.
Nichelle Smith, a features editor at the USA Today Network National News Desk, said she focuses much of her work on features, but since 2010, she’s been doing more and more with content related to race relations.
Changing Face of America – the USA Today project she’s been working on the most – is a national initiative run by the organization that collects different types of census-like data to localize racial demographics in different regions and communities throughout the United States.
Since 1991, USA Today has kept a diversity index – a single number that represents the chance that two random people in an area will be different by race and ethnicity. The information allows journalists to analyze the data more effectively, and it has become a key component of the project.
The current index number is 55 in the U.S., a jump from 20 in the early 1990s. Smith said this means many Americans can walk out of their homes and see people who aren’t like themselves on a frequent basis, which can sometimes be the unseen force behind social end economic situations in communities.
“There are different states across the country that have strengthened in diversity in the country since 1990,” Smith said. “The fluctuations can be a lot to handle when you’re looking at the large sale of things, but when you break it down and you’re able to apply the data to more specific areas, there is a lot that can be done and analyzed.”
When synthesizing the data, Smith said she has found that many people are returning to the south, and Northern Virginia is one of the most diverse in the nation. The reporters also saw that most rapid diversity is taking place in the Midwest, with the lowest in New England and parts of the Southwest.
“This kind of information has allowed papers working with us to suggest different areas where they saw conflict and we were able to bring data and shed light on it,” Smith said. “Anybody could take any piece of this data and apply it to whatever they wanted to. That’s really what we’re hoping will happen, and I encourage anyone interested to take a good look at what’ being done.”
The Associated Press
Larry Fenn, a data journalist with The Associated Press, also has been focusing on national data and statistics that bring insight to race and ethnicity in the United States.
Fenn, however, said there are more resources than the census, and he has focused his efforts on data that the federal government and local governing bodies have to offer.
“Whenever a survey is conducted anywhere, you can now use race and ethnicity from those surveys to gain insight on different things occurring in different areas and within different populations of people,” Fenn said.
Many surveys conducted around the country record information about race and ethnicity, and based off of those reports, journalists can gather information about specific groups of people. The data is available, Fenn said. It’s now just a question of where the data is and how to find creative ways to see where two data sets intersect.
“Whenever we do a story, its one of the first things we think about,” Fenn said. “Even if it doesn’t make it to print, it’s worth the trouble to find out how race and ethnicity play a fact in the situation or the story.”
Fenn suggested looking for data from the American Community Survey (ACS), which collects large amounts of information each year, as well as censusreporter.org.
The Washington Post
As a part of an going project that stared last year, journalists at The Washington Post are trying to tackle an important question in many communities: how may people are shot and killed by police each year?
Wesley Lowery, a national reporter at The Washington Post, has been a key contributor to the project that strives to find answers to the question that he said was born out of “journalistic curiosity.”
Federal databases don’t report the numbers of fatal police shootings, and Lowery said he and his team wanted to look at how they could replicate relevant data to answer the growing questions about the numbers.
“Very often we had one side saying one thing and the other saying another thing,” Lowery said. “We didn’t have data for how many fatal shootings were occurring – the information wasn’t being reported. So we had to start looking on our own to track down when and where and how often these fatal incidents were happening.”
Lowery and his team began searching for the numbers of reported fatal shootings by police, and because most police departments don’t keep records on how many of those incidents occur, the investigative journalists had to think more strategically to find the most accurate data possible.
“At the time, we didn’t even real know what we should be tracking – name, location, race,” Lowery said. “We took some of the best practices from citizen journalism and we aimed to collect data for 90 to 95 percent of these incidents. We started tracking the reports and we put together a database we continue to update.”
Lowery and his team were able to comprise a database with 990 fatal police shootings. Lowery said he was looking for similarities in cases that could explain why certain types of incidents happen in certain places, leading to more questions and investigations in different areas and among different populations of people.
“When we do race reporting, we spend a lot of time doing things that focus on if people think race was factor,” Lowery said. “But we’re now looking for are obtainable truths that prove whether race was a factor and what the objective is and finding out what is true.”