Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR): some theory


Here follows the lecture prompts for part I of my 2008/9 lectures on Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR). For part II on sources – see here.

Because of the speed at which new initiatives (and relevant research examples) come and go in this field, I’ll be adding updates on this post from time to time.

But to stay fully up to date with developments, keep an eye on my blog and website.

Computer Assisted Research (CAR): why?

  • Once research was the domain of librarians and researchers – not anymore.

  • Rapid developments in online technologies; contributor finding, fact-checking, current awareness, multimedia.

  • Changes in the news landscape (fragmentation of market and ‘efficiency drives’).

  • Journalists must now do all their own research.

Online research: what for?

  • Reference tools, archive sources, contributor finding tools.

Additional stresses in journalism

  • Negotiate day’s agenda

  • Conducting Interviews

  • Writing up copy

  • Establishing rights

  • Round-up meetings

  • Administration

  • New stories

Fast and efficient web search therefore becomes more and more important.

Celebrity Safari – joined up journalistic research

Before we get into search theory, lets start with a practical example.

How to find and track down a person in three stages (using three systems) – used all the time in journalism. In this example I use a celebrity, but day to day you would use this approach for real people who have been in the news.

Who is a member of their local public library? See if you have access to a newspaper cuttings database there.

Likewise if your university (or workplace) subscribe to Lexis Nexis or Factiva, ask around.

1. Where does Michael Winner live?

(you need Newsbank, NewsUK, Lexis Nexis, Factiva or other subscription services for this bit).

  • Search: “michael winner” winner “who lives”
  • Dates: 2003 – 2007
  • Publications: Broadsheets
  • Sort by: relevance

See Independent feature.

  • Lives: Holland Park
  • Partner: Geraldine Lynton-Edwards

2. Locate Address: (subscription). Get postcode, then…

3. Doorstep: Google Maps

Search strategy: the theory

Here is a great little introduction to search theory, to get you started. These are the key issues:

Problem: Looking for people who’ve got an issue with car parking at hospitals in London

Visualise the (hypothetical) information you want, in the words you would expect to find them on the page (or document).

‘unhappy’ – is it someone directly expressing this, or someone expressing ‘unhappiness’ – in the third person?

If you have a question, try partially answering this question in the search terms you use, using phrase searching.

Try “car parking” rather than car parking – don’t go too far though – with “hospital car park” the emphasis is on the parking, as much as the hospital (you don’t want to pick up on articles featuring unhappiness with the hospital, while mentioning their car park in passing)

Facet analysis – an old school approach.  Analyse your subject into different conceptual parts:

  • Dissatisfaction/unhappiness

  • Hospital car parking

  • London/south east

Once you’ve done this, choose your terms – use a thesaurus, and think around your subject – try to avoid words with multiple meanings, if possible. If that’s not possible, try incorporating those terms as part of a phrase.

Boolean logic:

  • AND:  (implicit)
  • OR:  blair wmd OR weapons
  • NOT:  rangers -qpr
  • Phrase search:  which is the “richest bank in the UK” (try with and without quotes)
  • Wildcard:  Google doesn’t support it – uses automatic stemming. But try in MSN, Yahoo or Exalead.
  • +: the plus sign allows you to stop Google from stemming your words – if you are interested in a word in a particular case. But it can also be applied to media sources, allowing you to search stories about that company in Google News. It’s a bit rare to use such a thing – but compare the results of waste BBC and waste +bbc in Google News.
  • Synonyms:  ~marriage (US version of Google already incorporating automatic synonyms – UK version still playing catchup, at time of writing).

It’s worth bearing in mind that other engines offer an even broader range of search operators. Exalead, for example, permits atleast and proximity searching.  Their atleast function allows the searcher to find pages which feature a term prominently, which can be useful when you are searching for backgrounders on people or issues. 

The proximity search function allows the searcher to find terms which occur close to each other, which can be useful when trying to unearth connections between people and events in the news. Speaking of proximity searching, this API allows proximity searching in Google results, albeit only where the terms you wish to find are no more than three words apart.  Here’s a practical overview of how this can help in CAR.

Problem: Looking for people who’ve got an issue with car parking at hospitals in London

Successive fractions, try:

1: london unhappy hospital “car parking” – get rid of Scottish results.

2: london unhappy hospital “car parking”-scotland – increase number of news results.

3: london unhappy hospital “car parking” -scotland

Advanced functions in Google

Here follows a look at just some of the advanced functions available to the searcher. As time passes, Google (and other engines) will no doubt provide even more means of tightening up your search by document type, or more general type of content.

     I  the domain function (just used, above): site:

1. Using the domain function to find academics

There are three factors involved:

  • Subject term/s,

  • A term connecting the subject to his/her profession (i.e. expert, department, professor etc.), and

  • The domain function: (for UK universities)

Find an expert in solvent abuse

Find a (US) expert on presidential spouses:

For a full list of national and top-level domains, check NORID domains.

Don’t forget to check Google’s Cached option if you find a page – it will show you the page as was when it was first indexed, so you won’t miss out on your terms if the page has changed in the meantime.

Also, don’t forget to use <Control F> in your browser to locate terms in large/long documents.

2. Using the domain function to find local pressure groups/nimby groups/associations and non-commercial bodies.

Find pressure group/s opposed to the building of a third runway at Heathrow.

3. Using the domain function to find discussions in Facebook.

You can’t do this within Facebook (or Bebo, or…)

     II  The occurances function: intitle:

For finding reliable backgrounders, bear in mind metadata standards used widely online. Bear in mind what is included in professional sites in their web page titles.

Say you want to find background (analysis, not news, professional not amateur) on the Somalie war in 2007.

You could also try: depth/comment/analysis//brief/background

You could also try this in the url too – inurl:

     III  The format selector for finding statistics:

Also try switching format to Powerpoint for finding experts on subjects (who will likely have demonstrated their expertise in presentations).

     IV  The language selector for article (don’t select, then select English):

For the second part of this lecture, see Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR): some sources.


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