I knew when I pitched my project for the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism last spring that I would be working heavily with data. But I underestimated what that entailed. SQL. Aggregate functions. Inner and outer joins. Some of these were terms I had heard before, but I had little idea what they meant, let alone how to use them.
As part of my fellowship, I attended a crash course in data analysis taught by instructors from Investigative Reporters & Editors last week. For five days, a group of 21 reporters from across the country gathered on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia. A team of data-focused professionals taught us the basics of Excel – beginning with the definitions of fields and moving to creating PivotTables. They taught us the basics of SQL in Microsoft Access so we can sort data and find extremes or averages, among countless other possibilities.
We practiced using data on lottery wins, Wisconsin hunting accidents and Illinois child support debtors, among others. As a result, we were able to practice using data in a variety of formats, better preparing us for our work when we returned to our newsrooms.
There was only one real trade-off for me – that I provide journalism students back at Marquette University with an abbreviated crash course on data analysis when I return. In an era when newsroom cuts make training opportunities increasingly rare, that was a small price to pay for an experience that will dramatically impact my career.
Because of this training, I can now do in minutes or hours tasks that previously would have taken days or weeks to do by hand. Tasks that were previously impossible can now be done with longer periods of time. My fellowship experience is only halfway through, and I can already tell it’s going to have a profound impact on my reporting.
Liz Navratil, a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is a 2015-16 O'Brien Fellow.