Guest Post: Pat Stith’s Data Reporting (and Life) Wisdom

This semester, David Raynor, The News & Observer’s data expert in the newsroom, is working with the Carolina Data Desk and students in Ryan Thornburg’s Data Driven Reporting course. This is a version of the advice he gave students in the class on his first visit with them last week.

For 13 years, I was honored and privileged to be able to work with Pat Stith, N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame investigative reporter. In Pat’s 37 years at The News & Observer, he performed a great public service by writing stories that held all levels of government accountable to the people. Those stories included: springing a man from jail and putting others behind bars; forcing the state to rewrite laws regarding worker’s compensation; revealing the environmental dangers of the pork industry (for which the paper won a Pulitzer); and showing how the state wasted more than $400 million in reforming mental health care.

Pat was one of the first journalists in the country to not only begin to understand the value of what we now call data journalism (“computer-assisted” reporting as it started out, and is still known as today), but to practice it. Pat was at the forefront of the first NICAR (National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting) conference in 1993 held in Raleigh. When I joined the newsroom in 1995, technology was beginning to allow reporters to acquire and analyze “big data,” and Pat knew how to take advantage of it. He laid the groundwork for this type of journalism at The N&O, and I was very fortunate to come along when I did and work with him—and other reporters—on many projects that were data-driven.

But for Pat it wasn’t that we acquired and analyzed data just because we could do it, but because it allowed us to tell the most complete, fair and accurate story we could tell. It was always about people, places, issues, policies and questioning government officials on how and why they conducted the people’s business. It was about using all the resources we had to hold government accountable, and gathering, analyzing and maintaining data often played a crucial role in that mission of doing good public service journalism

I’m very proud to call Pat a former colleague, a mentor and my friend. Here’s a sample of the many wise things that Pat had to say to me and all reporters he worked with. I’ve tried to apply them to data journalism, but of course they can be used as a guide to almost anything you do in life.

1. Can I see your log? Record every move you make in acquiring, analyzing and maintaining data, from the first request via email to the last report you run. Doesn’t matter what method or application you use, just do it. You need to be able to show anyone exactly how you did your work.

2. Just in time, not just in case. Don’t waste time acquiring data just because you think you might need it. Acquire it when the right story comes along and demands a need for the data.

3. In for a dime, in for a dollar. Don’t sell yourself or your team’s project short. Go as far as it takes to tell the best, most complete story you can. With data, typically ask for the entire database, not parts of it.

4. What’s time to a hog? Don’t focus on the amount of time it may take to do a task. When you know something has to be done, do it. Also, what’s time to a computer? Let the program, software and codes do the heavy lifting.

5. Will it sell in Knightdale? Even with sophisticated data analysis on a 3 part series, what does it all mean for the average Joe in the average small town? Make it clear what you want the reader to know from your months long analysis on that 10G database.

6. My name’s Jimmy, I’ll take what you gimme. Rarely ever do you turn down data offered, especially on deadline. Take what they give you for now with the understanding you’ll be back for more.

7. Who do I see about that? If a PIO can’t or won’t explain something to you, then find out who the gatekeeper is. Find the real “nerd” in the department. Who maintains that database?

8. Keep the dog off the sofa. Make public officials obey public records laws, or they will get lazy and develop bad habits.

9. Something ain’t clean in the milk. Check your work for not just blatant errors, but watch for subtle contradictions in analysis and various reports. Show your work to a colleague who isn’t involved in the story.  Do not ignore a red flag, however small.  It may be the only warning you’re going to get that you’re way off base.

10. If you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough. A persistent, dogmatic, determined attitude can take you far when you don’t quite have the technical skills to achieve a particular task.

One response to “Guest Post: Pat Stith’s Data Reporting (and Life) Wisdom”

  1. Hugh Stevens says:

    David, One of the most rewarding facets of my legal career was helping Pat figure out how to get access to databases back when no one knew what the hell a “database” was. Thanks for this.

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