First off, happy May Day! It seems the weather wanted to celebrate with us: The skies are clear and the sun is warm. Can’t complain, especially after the latest week of rain and hail.
“Act of god or… our own fault?” This is what Stephen K. Doig asked as he investigated and wrote his 1993 Pulitzer Prize winning, computer-assisted, coverage of Hurricane Andrew’s disastrous path for the Miami Herald.
Last Tuesday, Doig joined our Power Journalism class via Skype. It always is a little shocking when Skype becomes the medium for in-class interviews—or interviews in general. It is not as though Skype, or similar programs, are new, but the idea of interviewing someone over the Internet in real time and to be able to see their face is still different—in a good way. Face-to-face interviews with people who live thousands of miles away, is a wonderful tribute to the Internet age.
Doig, now the Knight chair in journalism at Arizona State University, is very interested in the usage of computer-assisted journalism. The ability to look at data and see patterns that will create a backbone for a story, and even possibly solve cases and give new insight into disasters is a powerful tool.
With the power of computers, Doig was able to figure out that there could have been much more damage done during Hurricane Andrew if it had hit a few miles off its actual path. He also found that there wouldn’t have been much damage done if the housing coding hadn’t gone lax—it was the newer houses that were destroyed in the hurricane, not the older. Without the help of computers, this would have been a much harder, if not impossible, task.
If he had to do the investigating today, Doig says, it would have taken only about three days, instead of the three months in took in the early 90s. Computer technology has advanced, and it’s much easier to decode data now.
Doig also says that while he called himself a computer-assisted reporter, most journalists today don’t use that title, even if they are. Computers and the Internet have become so ingrained in everyday life that people use it for most of their background source reporting, without even thinking they are doing something that deserves a specific title.
For many of us who grew up with computers and the Internet, it is not surprising that we would turn to one of our greatest resources to find stories and create a solid foundation for them. The important thing, as Doig says and I agree, is that computer-assisted reporting isn’t the only type of reporting done for a story. The human face and connection is what make a story important for the audience, and it’s what gives the story life. Computer-assisted reporting is important, but the living, breathing human angle is what makes the story.