The gulf between the British press and its American counterpart in the sophistication and popularity of computer assisted reporting (CAR) was highlighted acutely earlier this month when a series of reports on crime statistics that ran in the Brighton Argus drew praise for its use of data sets to build stories.

The stories, by reporter Louise Acford, had built ward crime figures from information detailed by the parish. Ms Acford used the spreadsheet software Excel to manage all the data and compile the final statistics of crimes committed in each ward.

Speaking to, she said that reporting of this kind was rare day to day and that compiling data and building a story in this manner 'represented a new challenge'.

It may be rare in the UK, yet reporting of this kind is commonplace on US newspapers where recorded crimes figures are often detailed online allowing the public to personally access data about their neighbourhoods.

Ms Acford's well-judged work and bold attempt to tackle a new form of reporting aside, CAR in the UK remains a largely untouched resource while in the US it is established and common practice.

As further evidence of the level of complexity at which CAR has reached in the US Martin Stabe, of the UK Press Gazette, recently blogged about the demanding skill set required by the Chicago Tribune as it attempted to recruit a specialist interactive database production reporter.

One reason for the slow uptake of CAR practices in the UK press is that it has only recently been allowed access to the data sets, through the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), which came into force in 2000. The New York Times may have a dedicated staff of nearly 20 working on CAR but then the US has had federal freedom of information since 1967.

"The ignorance of CAR is a function of the lack of freedom to information," said Gavin MacFadyean, who runs training courses open to British journalists on aspects of CAR for the Centre of Investigative Journalism. "There is not a tradition here of open-access, transparency and easily available information.

"A common complaint against CAR is: 'it is very American, it wouldn't work here because there is no information'. But it's not true. There is lots of information but you just have to dig it out.

"There is nothing like there is in the States that is true, but there is still vast amounts of material."

When Heather Brooke, an experienced computer-assisted reporter in the US and author of Your Right to Know, first came to this country she was shocked by the few requests for databases made by newsrooms and the lack of analysis born from a tradition where information was not forthcoming from public bodies.

"You can't have decent computer-assisted reporting without a good freedom of information law. The only way you get the data is under FoI. If you can't get the data then you can't do the analysis," she said.

"It's another problem that reporters don't know what's there and don't ask for it or, even when they do, they don't really know how to use it.

"Lots don't know how to properly use Excel or Microsoft Access, which is a database query program.

"I did a story for the Times on postcode justice. I had to get help from a guy in Denmark to analyse the data because no-one in Britain knew how to do it."

A tech-savvy reporter in the UK, she said, could now get data sets of food hygiene inspection scores, bus accidents, crime incidents, injuries on the Tube broken down by station/line, prosecution statistics by crime type/geographic area, CAP food subsidies and NHS financial returns for all trusts.

"There is a whole trench of data that they just don't have access to. They are not making enough requests for it or fighting to get these things in the public domain.

"There are so many stories that could be written. Take for example fire safety inspection reports. Those are available now and all the stories that have been written about food safety can now also be written about fire safety. But journalists in Britain don't really know about the fact that every business is now inspected for fire safety."

British journalist Stephen Grey broke the story of extraordinary rendition, alleging that terror suspects were being flown around the globe by CIA planes, in-part by assessing public data sets of aircraft flying into US airspace using Excel and a software program called Analyst's Notebook, which allows users to visually represent data patterns.

"We have got a much more aggressive, leaner, and overall a much better press, I would say, than in America," he said.

"The American press is a lot more academic… that makes for a less aggressive but more thoughtful press.

"One thing they do pick up by having this academic background is some of these techniques. But I think it is an import from the US that will come here… with the advent of digital mapping here and the FoIA, which has released certain databases, there are stories crying out to be done with these techniques but which have not been picked up because only about one per cent of journalists in the UK know how to use Excel.

"People will see stories created by these techniques. It only takes a few people to do some good things and others will say: 'well, how do I do this?' and do it too."

Teaching current and prospective journalists how do develop skills with software, Mr MacFadyean said, would create evangelists for CAR who could then spread knowledge of how it can be applied practically in the newsroom.

For the first time, he said, elements of CAR were being written into the syllabus of the masters degree in Investigative Journalism at City University, where he a tutor.

Investing greater resources into CAR, he added, would improve the standard of stories that can be produced through freedom to information.

However, he warned that a long-range perspective was needed from editors, as the process was not given over to the immediacy usually associated with newsrooms in the UK.

"What makes a newspaper unique is its ability to get complicated information. Analyse it and present it to the public in a way that is easy to understand," Ms Brooke added.

“The kind of thing that really makes a paper stand out is the kind of information that it gives to its readership... this is one good tool they could use; TV generally doesn't do it because it's not the right medium for that mass of information. Anyone can do it but I think that it's particularly well adapted for newspapers.

"We need to get the newspapers to understand why they should be interested in it, even though it takes so long to get information under FoI and it's such a risky process because most requests get a refusal.

"There is a need to try to convince them to put some effort and resources into it."

Have you had any experience of CAR? We'd love to hear about it.

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