NPF: Reporters find White House Data Out of Reach

Reporters find White House Data Out of Reach

David Donald, data journalist in residence, American University

By Chris Adams The world is awash in data, and so is Washington. But for reporters covering the White House, finding good usable data is frustrating and limiting. That’s the conclusion of David Donald, a data journalist at American University in Washington who presented during a day devoted to covering the White House and the use of data in journalism. Donald has a background working for news and journalistic organizations such as Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Center for Public Integrity. Most of the assembled journalists said they used spreadsheet programs such as Excel; a handful had used bigger, more powerful databases; and even fewer had used the kind of statistical programs that allow for the most sophisticated analysis. Over the years, Donald’s field has evolved from what was known as “precision journalism,” which used social science methods to test the assumptions journalists might otherwise report on anecdotally, to “computer-assisted reporting,” which aimed to analyze major government and other databases, to the kind of “data journalism” that involves building apps for mobile news platforms and interactive tools that are part of news today. As for data at the White House, Donald says, there’s not much going there, in large part because much of the White House is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, the federal law that allows outsiders to pry open information from many other parts of government. There is data available, but Donald cautioned that it needs to be used with care. The White House visitor logs, for example, are released periodically and number in the millions. But they’re also maddeningly incomplete, with the kind of redundancies and inconsistencies that make using the information a challenge. While the White House isn’t a great source for data, Donald said that some other agencies are treasure troves. Among the most helpful are those from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, where the FRED data system offers reporters an ability to dive in deep on economics data by region and over time.