software, reports Census Bureau knew of the error but never fixed it
AT FIRST, IT seemed like a small glitch.
Professor Ed Sylvester of Arizona State University was using a U.S. Census Bureau CD-ROM to coach a roomful of reporters at the Oshkosh (Wis.) Northwestern about computer-assisted reporting.
But as they manipulated the data, the group realized that some of the census numbers couldn't possibly be accurate. For example, data on the CD-ROM put the total population of Milwaukee city at 115,400. The actual figure is approximately 625,000.
"I thought either there's a mistake here, or there's a really good story," Sylvester said. "That's the virtue of databases; they help you spot trends."
A little more digging, and a trip by Sylvester to Census Bureau headquarters in Maryland, uncovered a scoop: 5,000 of the CD-ROMs with 1990 census data contained flawed software. Even bigger: While the Census Bureau had been aware of the problem for years, it had made no effort to correct the problem, and only a half-hearted effort to notify the public.
Reporters from the Northwestern jumped on the case and turned out a front-page story. Accompanying art used color graphics to illustrate the software problem.
According to the Northwestern investigation, the faulty software jumbled population numbers during downloading from the CD-ROM. In all, figures for areas, defined by the Census Bureau as Metropolitan Statistical Areas, in 19 states were affected.
The Northwestern took what might have been a short item about an obscure software glitch and drove home the relevancy to readers: A wide variety of consumers use census information as a planning tool. Businesses use it to decide where to open a new location. Governments use it to determine how much money programs get.
The fact that the Census Bureau knew there was a problem but made no real effort to fix it, other than posting a correction on an obscure bulletin board, gave the story a bigger punch.
After the story ran, the Census Bureau announced plans to contact everybody who had purchased the disk in order to explain the problem and to offer a free replacement.
But that might not be the end of it. U.S. Rep. Thomas Petri, (R-Wis.), announced that he is seeking a congressional investigation into why it took the Census Bureau over two years to issue a widespread alert.
"I want to know why this happened and be sure they don't attempt to keep this glitch under the rug," Petri told the Associated Press. "I believe it's very serious. It's unacceptable. It hurts the credibility of our government."
Back at the Northwestern, the story gave the staff a page-one example of the benefits that can come from searching databases and examining data.
"Computer-assisted reporting is one way small newspapers can break big stories," said Thomas Lee, executive editor. "The better journalism schools are way ahead of many newspapers with computer-assisted reporting, and the schools can make a huge contribution."
At the Northwestern, he added, training for computer-assisted reporting is required for all reporters. "They've been told to get on the train," he said. "That's the way this newsroom is going."
The course was part of a summer program sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
"I've been teaching this for 51/2 years now, and this is one of those things that increases my faith in its benefits," said Sylvester, who teaches computer-assisted reporting at ASU.
"You can never assume that because it came out of a computer that the data must be right," he added. "But I never expected to have such a vivid illustration of that."
?( Journalism professor Edward Sylverster of Arizona State University instructs Oshkosh (Wis.) Northwestern reporters on crunching census data.) [photo & caption0]
By: Dorothy Giobbe Oshkosh (Wis.) Northwestern uncovers flawed 1990 census