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Computer-Assisted Reporting Gains Ground


IT'S not just publishers who are taking a new look at information technologies. Journalists are looking to computers and computer networks to dig up better stories.

This technojournalism is still in its infancy. But interest is growing. The new field even has a name: computer-assisted reporting.

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``Computer-assisted reporting is not about computers; it's about reporting,'' says Frank Daniels, executive editor of the News and Observer here in Raleigh. ``We must use these tools to recast the relationship with our communities.''

``In the news business, computers are becoming an essential part of doing our job,'' adds Deborah Nelson, president of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a national journalists' organization.

Used well, the technology creates news stories that would have been impossible to do using other methods. Last year, the Kansas City Times won a Pulitzer prize for its computer-aided look at who was reaping the benefits of federal agriculture programs. Computer analysis has also been used to analyze criminal trends in Tacoma, Wash., reveal lax enforcement practices at the Federal Aviation Administration, and delve into which politicians received the most money from health-care political-action committees.

Reporters at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a computer analysis last spring of all Missouri's traffic-violation convictions. They were trying to find out whether men or women were better drivers. (Women won, hands down.) Without computers, such a story would have been impossible, says reporter Virgil Tipton. ``It would have been all anecdotal.''

THE Raleigh News and Observer is one of the leading newspapers practicing computer-aided journalism. Even its library is equipped with links to Internet, the world's largest network of computer networks, and electronic bulletin boards.

The staff, which includes two database editors, has also compiled its own database of North Carolina citizens who have made political contributions.

Not everyone is comfortable with computer-aided journalism. ``There's a big division among investigative reporters,'' says Teresa Leonard, director of the News and Observer's news-research department. ``There are some that don't want anything to do with computer-aided reporting.''

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But Mr. Daniels of the News and Observer is an unabashed supporter. ``Reporters and editors must use these tools to write better stories,'' he says. ``The nice thing is that it's making our jobs a lot more fun.''

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