How journalists can mine census data for stories about their changing communities

Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau rolls out the first data in a long string of releases that will keep journalists busy for more than a year. The government has a new widget that will help you see the changes in your state’s population and the apportionment of seats in Congress that comes with the population changes. You can also watch this video that explains how apportionments are calculated.

Smart newsrooms are assigning the Census story as a beat, and the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) association considers it so important that IRE conducted special training to help journalists sharpen their Census skills. You can download the training for $10.

Doug Haddix is one of the trainers for the IRE Census reporting. I asked him some questions about the stories ahead. Here is an edited version of our e-mail interview.

Al Tompkins: What are the big things journalists should look for in the Census data?

Doug Haddix: The 2010 Census will be a treasure chest of story ideas for every community in America.

For the first time since the 2000 Census, reporters will be able to track trends at the micro level, down to the neighborhood (census tract in government lingo).

Most of the information will be directly comparable to 2000 data, with much of it ripe for comparisons going back decades before that.

Obvious stories include population shifts, aging trends, and race/ethnicity topics such as integration or segregation. We’ll be able to see how all of that is shifting among large cities, suburbs, small towns, metro areas and various regions of the country.

Less obvious stories include topics such as the multi-racial population. This data will give us the first official look at how America’s multi-racial population has grown and shifted since 2000 — the first time that people could select more than one race on the Census form.

Similarly, the number of same-sex and heterosexual domestic partners can be tracked to see changing trends since 2000 — the first time that information was gathered.

In addition, the 2010 Census has a housing question that will allow reporters to track home ownership vs. renting, vacant properties, and the number of people who own their houses free and clear of a mortgage. That should be particularly telling after the housing bust that triggered the Great Recession.

All of the other rich demographic data — country of birth, education levels, income, commuting and the like — are now part of the annual American Community Survey (ACS) from the Census Bureau.

The ACS replaces the “long form,” a census survey last done in 2000. As of early December, five-year ACS data is now available down to the census tract level.

To help journalists navigate the confusing maze of census information, IRE created a Census Resources page at www.ire.org/census.

Do I have to know a spreadsheet program, like Excel to use Census data?

Haddix: No, but it helps for deeper analysis. The American FactFinder tool at www.census.gov enables anyone to pull up customized data tables for their area. For some questions, you also can generate color-coded maps. For many reporters, those online tools will be enough to extract key facts and stats for trend stories.

The Census Bureau plans to reveal a redesigned American FactFinder in January that promises to be more user-friendly, with robust mapping options.

More sophisticated and probing analysis, though, requires the use of spreadsheet or database software. It doesn’t take long to learn the basic spreadsheet tools to sort information, filter out just what you’re seeking, and do basic math calculations such as change and percent change.

Beyond census data crunching, reporters who learn basic spreadsheet skills can dig deeper in covering business, government, sports and just about every beat imaginable. I can’t think of a beat without money or numbers.

Is this a story that local journalists working under tight deadlines can really work on? Database stories sound time consuming.

Haddix: Plucking census data from American FactFinder can be especially helpful on deadline. Once you’re familiar with basic navigation of the website, you can extract key data nuggets quickly. Often, that’s all you need as the foundation of a trend story.

Copy editors and producers, too, can fact-check stories quickly using census information. With basic spreadsheet skills, journalists can do analysis on deadline, whether it’s a few hundred rows of data or thousands of rows of information.

The Census data rolls out over 2011 and even into 2012.  What are the big releases we should be looking for?

Haddix: The first numbers come out this week — each state’s official population. That will determine which states pick up more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and which ones will lose seats. It’s all based on population shifts. Those numbers also determine federal spending on programs in every state.

Beginning in mid-February, the Census Bureau will begin releasing detailed tables and data by state. At this point, there’s no release schedule, so it’s impossible to know when your state’s data will be posted on American FactFinder.

The first big wave of data will be rolled out for every state by April 1. That data will have detailed counts and data down to the tiny census block. That’s the smallest unit of census geography. Everything else — tracts, towns, school districts, counties, metro areas, voting districts, etc. — is built by putting together census blocks. The detailed data will be used to redraw political boundaries for Congressional districts as well as state legislative districts.

In May, information will be broken down for “group quarters,” which cover people living in prisons, college dorms, nursing homes and the like.

Most of the rest of the data will be released in waves during the summer.

What do you predict will be the biggest story to come out of the 2010 Census?

Haddix: The rapidly shifting racial and ethnic makeup of America. The ongoing surge of the Latino population, in particular, has huge implications for politics, social services and the economy. Similarly, changing trends in the African-American and Asian communities are redefining our country.

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