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Teaching Online Journalism

Masters of the database, extraordinary journalism

Martin Stabe points us to the Web site for the book Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program, by Stephen Grey:

… aside from its intrinsic significance, the story is also probably the premier recent example of computer-assisted reporting in British journalism.

Grey uncovered the fleet of CIA-owned aircraft used for rendition by obtaining huge databases of flight logs from the FAA in America, data collected by plane spotters and provided by an aviation-industry source.

He then used Analyst’s Notebook, a sophisticated (and expensive) piece of software normally used by police and intelligence agencies, to cross-reference the thousands of individual flights with details gleaned from the anecdotes told by the handful of prisoners who had emerged …

This is the sort of skillset that journalists will increasingly need to do extraordianry investigative stories in a society where public records come by the gigabyte on DVDs rather than as a stack of photocopies leaked in a brown envelope.

This kind of journalism has been done by affiliates of IRE for many years (Grey credits the Danish International Center for Analytical Reporting with helping him), but effectively coupling it with the Web and making it accessible to audiences is still rare — that’s why Adrian Holovaty gets so much attention.

Stabe is 100 percent correct — this skill set is desperately needed in journalism today. We make sure every journalism student in our school gets some hands-on training with Excel, but the resistance level is very high. I wonder what we should do to make it clear to the students how important these skills are.

Flight logs studied by Grey are available at his site.

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