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JRN 802 2001
Investigative Techniques
In-Depth Reporting/
Computer-Assisted Reporting

(Archived copy... I no longer teach this course but I have left the outline because it is of interest to the CAR community.)
BUT visitors may be interested in my research blog, where I am updating my old Creative Research site.

This course will enhance the research knowledge and skills developed in Information Resources. The focus will be on using access to public sources, documents and computer records to create investigative or enterprise pieces for publication either as freelance for outside publications or the Ryersonian.

The course has a number of aims.

  1. We will use century old "shoe leather" techniques to report investigative or other enterprise/in-depth pieces.
  2. We will take reporting into the new century by exploring Computer-Assisted Reporting from the Canadian perspective.
  3. As part of CAR we will look at the budget process in Canada, with an emphasis on the provincial and municipal governments --and this year the problem of municipal assessment in Toronto.
  4. The course will look at today's techniques of presenting the indepth story from the standard feature to 'literary journalism.'

Two computers

Why Computer-Assisted Reporting? A few years ago, the "experts" estimated that 75 per cent of all government business would be done by computer by the year 2000. Last year's Y2K fixes hastened the process. If you're going to be a reporter in the Twenty-First Century, you will have to have computer skills to "get that story" from the Internet, a database or spreadsheet. Given the situation in this country in 2000, learning to do this on your own, by creating your own spreadsheet or database, will, perhaps, be most important.

Course content
This course has a heavy workload.
  • The course work, consisting of three reporting assignments, detailed below, require forethought and planning. You should start thinking about major assignment on the first day of class and have a game plan by the time the "pitch document" is due.
  • You are learning new technical skills, skills that will help you as you continue your career in journalism. All students, but especially those on the Ryerson Review of Journalism, should realize that attendance is necessary to learn the computer skills I am teaching in this class and if you skip, you will fall behind and may not able to complete the assignments.
  • In previous years, students on the Review were able to make both deadlines, the ones for the Review and the ones for this class. So were most students with jobs, including the overnight radio shift. Plan and organize so you can do it.
  • You will note there is gap in the deadlines between the Internet and Spreadsheet/Database assignment. This gives you the time to learn the necessary technical skills. But the deadline for the major project is soon after the Spreadsheet/Database assignment. Plan accordingly.

When I began teaching this course in 1995, most reporters in Canada believed that we would follow the U.S. model of slowly gaining access to government databases. This is not happening in Canada and may not happen for some time.

But there are successful Computer-Assisted Projects, projects where reporters create their own spreadsheets and databases. So the emphasis on the course is changing more toward data creation rather than data acquisition.

Part of this will look at the budget process in municipal and provincial politics. Given the present political situation in Canada this is a key issue, one you will be covering. We're going to make it interesting (but not easy).

Class Schedule
I always keep the schedule flexible because each year I invite a wide variety of guest speakers, and we adjust classes to fit with their schedules. Generally, however, computer and technical classes will be on Wednesdays in Kerr Hall. On Thursdays, guest speakers and reporting classes will be in V-183 at the J-School.
For two days in January or February, you will be treated to a modified version of the CBC's highly-regarded investigative reporting course, taught by Sig Gerber, who recently retired as head of CBC Current Affairs. Don't miss it.

  • What is Investigative Reporting?
  • What is Computer-Assisted Reporting?
  • Planning the in-depth project.
  • Organizing your material
  • Basics of Numeracy, Spreadsheets and Databases
  • The Internet as a source
  • Using on-line sources and contacts
  • Advanced Internet Reporting
  • The paper chase
  • The Care and Feeding of Sources
  • Writing for Clarity I

  • Spreadsheets-Introductory (Excel 97)
  • Spreadsheets-Intermediate Exercises
  • Creating budgets, covering budgets
  • Municipal assessment
  • Interviews
  • Access to Information, Freedom of Information
  • The Legal aspects, a look at libel and libel chill, privacy
  • Ethics in investigation

  • Databases (Access)
  • Simple Database Analysis
  • Creating your own database
  • MapInfo and Atlas GIS (at the Dept. of Geography lab)
  • Investigating for broadcast
  • Magazine pieces and investigative books

  • Investigating the Boonies
  • Writing for clarity II
  • Guerrilla Journalism
  • Journalism in the 21st Century


1. Major Project
You will pitch, research and write a major depth reporting project. There will be equal emphasis on 1) documentary evidence and/or computer data and 2) the "people" aspects of investigatory or enterprise stories. The latter is essential in broadcasting and desirable in print stories. You will also have to hand in a "how I did it" piece along with the story.
Length A minimum of 2,000 words, but most successful projects are usually longer...give me what the story is worth.
There are two acceptable approaches to this project

1)Investigative: Traditional investigative reporting, tracking, investigating, proving, reporting and writing.
Example from previous year:A crooked dating service.
2)Anthropological: A reporter takes a participant-observer approach to a story, while at the same time maintaining journalistic standards.
Examples from previous year: A look at native Canadian communities in Scarborough, life in a Toronto cigar factory.

You can also combine the two. One of the best projects in a previous year was an anthropological look at the effect of a murder on a Toronto neighborhood.

NOTE: To get a high mark on this project, you must go beyond an ordinary 5W+ approach. Give me something I want to read.

Proposal/ Pitch Document Deadline: Thursday January 25, 2001
Convince me, as an editor or senior producer, the project is worthwhile. Convince me this is a passion project, not just another assignment. Passion projects sell!
Progress Report Deadline: Thursday, March 1, 2001
Convince me the story will fly. Hand in an outline, chronology and profile of the main characters. The progress report is part of your final mark for the project.

Project Deadline: Wednesday April 11, 2001

2. Internet Search and Reporting Assignment

Use an extensive search to find a story on the Internet, either on the World Wide Web or through a mailing list. Develop the story, going beyond the Internet, talking to human beings and gathering data from other sources. The story should be about 1,000 to 1,500 words, with an accompanying note on 1)what drew you do the story and 2)how you evaluated the online information
Extra Credit will be given for stories in HTML (World Wide Web format) with appropriate (and working) weblinks.
Deadline: Thursday, February 15, 2001

3. Spreadsheet and Database Reporting Assignment

Find a news, feature or investigative story using a spreadsheet or database. Obtain and analyse an existing spreadsheet or database or create your own.(There are databases and spreadsheets available on the Internet. If you find one, evaluate it for accuracy and value) Report on what you find, and what it means to a reader or viewer. Create a spreadsheet and tell me the story that springs from that spreadsheet.
This may be the continuing saga of government budget cuts, or the problems Toronto is facing with new municipal assessment or some other story that uses a spreadsheet to tell a story. The best approach this year is try to look at budget cuts or property tax issues in your local community.

NOTE: The end of the Ontario fiscal year is March 31, so not all organizations will have a final budget. If you chose to do a budget, do your best.
Extra Credit for obtaining a database that is not on the World Wide Web or for creating your own database.
Deadline Thursday, March 30, 2001

4. Historical Sidebar
For any one of the above assignments, you must use material from human beings, morgues, libraries or microfilm to report on a background or historical angle to that contemporary news story. You cannot use on-line sources such as the Internet or Lexis Nexis for this assignment, so the story must date at least from before 1975.
This works best with your major project but can be a sidebar to any of your three assignments.
Deadline: Deadline date for the assignment you are backgrounding.

Books: Required Reading: JRN 802 Computer Manual – a reader available in the bookstore. Highly recommended reading:My book, The Creative Guide to Research, which is based, in part, on my experience teaching this class for the past seven years.
Available in the bookstore or online from


Late work

Deadlines are sacred!

 Submitted  Penalty
 24 hours late Drop one letter grade
48 hours late Drop additional half letter grade
72 hours late  Drop additional half letter grade
 4-7 days Pass Only (if work meets standards)
 After one week No grade

Cutoff time is main office closing on the date of the assignment. All assignments not handed in during class must be time/date stamped by office staff.
If you are unable to turn the work in on time, you must tell me well ahead of deadline.



Major Reporting Project 50 %
Internet Reporting 10 %
Spreadsheet/ Database Reporting 25 %
Historic sidebar 5 %
Initiative, effort, risk taking &
Class Presentation/Attendance 10 %

There is no final exam.

The investigative reporter is considered one of the elite in the profession, so standards in this class will be high.
As well as writing books and articles, I've worked on the desk at both CBC News and CTV News. For the past several years, I've helped young reporters across the country. I've also torn apart stories from young reporters across the country.
I will operate as an assignment editor/desk editor who guides a reporter to make sure the work handed in to the desk and published is the best it can be.

A C Grade is for work that is publishable and accurate.
For the major project, a fairly standard news feature, a 750 word wire service style will receive a C- , if it's good. This is a class where you must stretch your journalistic talents.
A B Grade is for is one that is competent, shows initiative and (since this is advanced reporting) some insight.
An A Grade is for the story that meets or surpasses the standard of elite reporting, extra initiative, going the extra kilometer.

Team Work
Teams of up to three students are allowed for the major reporting project.
Each student must demonstrate that they contributed to the project by handing in a separate assignment. That will include a distinct written story as well as each individual's research log.

Bail Out Date
Thursday March 1, 2001 is the final bailout date.
Unless there are special circumstances, you may not change your project after that date.
A member of team will not be permitted to bail out of the team or join an existing team after March 1, 2001. It is unfair to other team members to leave them high and dry or to come in at the last moment.
You should have completed enough preliminary work by study week
to know whether or not your project will fly and you can meet the deadline.
At the same time, team members should know by that date whether or not they can work together.
If you do have to bail out by the final date, an extension on the Progress Report will be agreed by the student and myself. You must, however, hand in the Progress Report in sufficient time, so that we will know if the new approach to the major project will work.

1. Use of your Ryerson Internet e-mail account is mandatory in this class. The computer can tell me whether or not your account is active.
2. There is a mailing list: Everyone in this class is automatically a member. It will be used for both administrative messages and for discussion among yourselves. Using an outside service provider is not advisable.
CCS has changed its procedures and it is now more difficult to add outside addresses to the list. You can create a file to forward your mail from Ryerson to your home ISP.
With most home e-mail software, you can then create a filter to put your Rye mail in an appropriate mailbox.
3. Every student should have a supply of High Density floppy disks for class exercises. You should use these disks just for the CAR assignments and use other disks for other classes.
4. Our computer classroom is a student lab, you may use it at any time it is not booked for another class.

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