Dispatches from Boot Camp

Boot camp is not for sissies.

This I know, so I am cautioning myself to not get cocky or lulled into a false sense of confidence based on the slow starting pace of this week’s computer-assisted reporting (CAR) boot camp.

It’s run by Investigative Reporters & Editors, which is where I’m also working as a research assistant while in grad school. These folks are, by all accounts, the kings of CAR. They know their business and they know how to teach it, so I trust some mental acrobatics are in store the rest of this week.

But truth be told, I’m grateful for the simple start. It makes the skills accessible to virtually anyone — including me, who needed a refresher in class yesterday on what a “median” average is.

Hopefully, I will have a more sophisticated definition of computer-assisted reporting by the end of the week, but so far this is what I can tell: It’s about accessing, managing and tapping into data. Big Data. Such as FBI crime reports, local health code violations, pensions, figures from any number of industries, and on and on. We started with Excel, are moving into Access, and will end with Freedom of Information Act requests.

It certainly satisfies my geeky side, and offers inspiration. Along with the stories of reporting and innovations that have come out of boot camp alums, my fellow students remind me that the career I have chosen is very real and really significant. Here are three examples of work (that may or may not have been done by boot campers) that used CAR:

Seniors for Sale by Michael Berens, The Seattle Times

Murder Mysteries by Tom Hargrove, Scipps Howard News Service

The Hidden Life of Guns, Washington Post

The other cool part of CAR is the simple stuff: knowing your way around data well enough to get in and out quickly with a story, a lead, a better question to ask. It doesn’t all have to be about the heavy, long-term investigations, Mark Horvit reminded us in lab yesterday. And we’re doing exercises in lab to drive that point home. In this and many other ways, I am appreciating how pragmatic their approach is.

This is the second “boot camp” of sorts I have signed up for in my life, the first being a ten-day silent Vipassana meditation back in 1999. At the time, I not-so-fondly called it Boot Camp for Buddhists. (In retrospect, the term is endearing and, one way or another, I draw on what I learned there almost every day of my life. Well, on the better days, anyway.)

As much as I’m getting out of this boot camp — computer-assisted reporting is clearly useful and can be pretty hard-core — my guess is that even NICAR ain’t got a patch on Mr. Goenka.

After all, even database queries start with taking a deep breath.

4 Replies to “Dispatches from Boot Camp”

  1. Hey, I love that your blogging on this bootcamp- had no idea you were taking it. Keep it up! I’m taking the CAR boot camp next August and would love to keep reading about what it’ll be like. Good luck!

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