It’s hardly news that technology is transforming the way that consumers engage with journalism. But how effectively have journalists embraced technology? Asking that question led Sarah Cohen, Knight Professor of the practice at the Sanford School’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist herself, to conceive what she calls the Reporters’ Lab—a sort of think tank, research center, toolkit, and Web-based hosting service.
According to the lab’s website, government offices from the local police department to the federal Department of Energy routinely generate artifacts that could become “vital elements” in investigative journalism. “Even when reporters can pry those records from agency warehouses and hard drives, the stories are still hidden in hours of videos, stacks of forms, and gigabytes of data housed in unfriendly formats.”
The issue in journalism transcends access: The full-time reporters who ply their trade in city halls and statehouses are disappearing. A 2011 study by the Federal Communications Commission documents the decline of local watchdog reporting. The study described a resulting “shift in the balance of power—away from citizens, toward powerful institutions.”
The Reporters’ Lab aims to help journalists make sense of “messy, confusing, and inconveniently formed records.” As the website notes, ubiquitous computer power already reduces billions of tweets into a routine data set. So it makes sense to redeploy that computer power and provide “easy-to-use, targeted, and customized software that helps solve reporting problems and open up new journalistic frontiers.”