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Content & Media > Book Reviews > "The Associated Press Guide to Internet Research and Reporting" >

"The Associated Press Guide to Internet Research and Reporting"

by Frank Bass

2001 Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, Massachusetts

168 pages; US$15


Review by Madanmohan Rao (madan@techsparks.com)

This compact guide is a useful reference for students and writers beginning to weave the Internet with their reporting activities. The focus is entirely on the news environment of the US, but there are informative learnings for students from other countries as well.

Frank Bass has been director of computer assisted reporting at The Associated Press (AP) since 1997. He shared the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. The material is divided into 12 chapters, covering basic IT skills like the use of spreadsheets, databases and search engines in the reporting context as well as copyright issues and historical trends.

Key contributions of the Internet for reportage include speed of the medium, its vast treasurehouse of useful sites, low costs of access compared to earlier proprietary technologies, and integration into newsroom workflow. Still, journalists must not forget the basics of accuracy, clear writing, and original research, Bass advises.

One of the earliest uses of computers in reporting was by CBS in 1952, to analyse a presidential race. AP installed computers in the early 1960s to handle financial news. The New York Times placed its abstracts on computers in 1971. In 1972 Dialog was created as an online news database (acquired by Knight-Ridder in 1988), followed by Lexis in 1973.

PCs were launched in 1977, and the IBM PC in 1981. Online service CompuServe launched email in 1969 and chat services in 1980. Spreadsheets took off with VisiCalc in 1979 and Lotus 1-2-3 in 1982. In 1983, the PC was declared as "Person of the Year" by Time magazine.

Prodigy was launched in 1990, the same year that Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. In 1992, the term "surfing the Internet" was coined by Jean Armour-Polly, a New York Librarian. The browser Mosaic was launched in 1993 followed by Netscape in 1994. In 1996, AOL launched flat-rate Internet access, removing one of the last major barriers to widespread Internet usage in US newsrooms.

Phil Meyer shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for a story in which he used computers to analyse survey data; in 1972, David Burnham used computers to unearth significant discrepancies in crime reportage.

Meyer also published a book called "Precision Journalism" in 1973, on the use of quantitative analysis in journalism. The same year, Philadelphia Inquirer journalists created a massive database on their own, linking court data for a major story on court system inequities. Others began to match different sets of databases to unearth driving patterns.

"The Internet, ubiquitous in newsrooms today, did not become an indispensable free research tool for journalists until the late 1990s," says Bass. Computers can be used not just for word processing and surfing but in sophisticated numerical analysis and visualisation.

"Although the Internet hasn't solved every reporter's deadline problems, it has made the process of finding background information much easier and quicker. Today, any reporter can use the Internet to get a broad range of reliable information," according to Bass.

A wealth of sources and resources can be dug up via Web sites, search engines, listservs and newsgroups. The site www.topica.com is a useful place to search for listservs, and Google for newsgroups and Web sites. Reporters would be particularly interested in the e-forums of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, Society of Professional Journalists, and Foreign Correspondents.

Dozens of useful government, educational and business resources are listed for US reporters: firstgov.gov, www.opensecrets.ogr, www.census.gov, www.stateline.org, www.ncesed.gov, www.epa.gov, www.sierraclub.org, www.supremecourtus.gov, www.faa.gov, www.dot.gov, www.sec.gov, www.hoovers.com, www.nim.nih.gov. Others include the CIA World Factbook, MapQuest, Weather.com, and Investigative Reporters and Editors (www.ire.org). Federal-level information may be well organised in many instances, but the availability at the local level can be spotty in some cases.

The 1966 Freedom of Information Act is a useful tool for responsible reporters to pry data from governments. The government usually has 20 days to respond, except for cases of national security, trade secrets and ongoing investigations. A lot of this US data is now available in spreadsheet and database-ready formats, but quite a bit is still in text or other formats.

"The 1996 amendments also created a class of requests known as E-FOIA, which allows requestors to specify an electronic format. The amendments led to the creation of a Government Information Locator Services (www.access.gpo.gov/su/docs/gils/index.html), designed to help the public locate and retrieve electronic information through the Internet," says Bass.

Tools like spreadsheets can be used to analyse budgets and campaign spending. Databases can be used to 'join' different sets of data. ArcView software can help create mapping visualisations. Reporters should have a good footing in statistics to dig up the real stories behind polls and surveys.

One chapter covers copyright issues like reproduction, distribution, public performance, public display, duration, registration, fair use, and public domain (well explained on sites like www.loc.gov/copyright). The tort of misappropriation of "hot news" prevents others from using the facts contained in a news story during a short "hot news" window, according to Bass.

"The advent of the Internet can be seen as a lowering of the barrier to entry of becoming a large-scale copyright infringer," says Bass. Some have even described the Internet as "one big photocopying machine."

"The advent of the Internet and wide use of the Internet has not significantly changed copyright law, though it has certainly added a few kinks. Generally, if something is a copyright violation in the real world, then it is a copyright violation in cyberspace," Bass concludes.


Madanmohan Rao is the author of "The Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook" and can be reached at madan@techsparks.com


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