Module JG110

Computer-Assisted Journalism

Module author

Tanni Haas

City University of New York

Learning objectives After studying this module, you will be able to:
  • Define computer-assisted journalism and explain how it works;
  • Explain how this concept evolved;
  • Give an overview of the historic development of the technology that led to this genre, including key persons who established computer-assisted journalism;
  • Reflect this genre critically.
Study point 1
Reading extract Computer-Assisted Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that computater-assisted journalism is important zu know

Computer-Assisted Journalism (CAJ) is a specific journalistic research technique. Also commonly referred to as Computer-Assisted Research (CAR), this investigative technique involves the use of computers and database analysis to discover patterns and trends that may be useful in producing news reports. The term may also refer to general journalistic research completed with the assistance of the internet and computer technologies. 

Though this journalistic genre may sound modern due to its name, the origins of Computer-Assisted Research can be traced back to computerized research and database searches used in journalism as early as the 1960's and 1970's. Since then, this journalistic style has grown in popularity and ultimately evolved as the internet has developed and expanded. Today, CAR is easier than ever to execute due to the massive amounts of data conglomerated by online search engines. 

How is Computer-Assisted Research done?

Computer-Assisted Journalism is a continually evolving field. In a general sense, the process involves utilizing online resources for journalistic research. 

CAJ/CAR is a broad umbrella term encompassing the many computer-based techniques used for research. A journalist may be considered to be engaging in CAJ simply by searching through Google, fact-checking information for an article, or gathering information for an interview. Oftentimes, the term refers to more detailed forms of electronic research, such as searching for information in government databases, combing through digitized archives of print resources, and more. Journalists may confirm or research the identities of individuals through this form of research, searching through public records to discover information or double-check facts. The practice often incorporates the techniques used in investigative and analytic "precision" journalism.

Fundamentally, computer-assisted journalism involves all of the journalistic research that would have traditionally occurred offline. Rather than visiting a paper archive at a library, journalists may now use internet resources to do their research. Instead of flying across the country to conduct an interview, a journalist may now email or Skype with an individual to gather information from them. 

CAJ makes data analysis and research far simpler and more efficient than the process of analyzing data without a computer. Simple software tools, such as spreadsheets, can be used to compile and analyze data with ease. More complex tools, such as data mining programs, geographic information systems, and demographic databases can be used to identify patterns, trends, and discrepancies in data. Such tools have made it easier than ever to gather concrete facts and data that may provide the foundation for an investigative news article.

Why should I use Computer-Assisted Journalism? 

In some way, shape, or form, Computer-Assisted Journalism is utilized by almost every journalist today. This is due to the fact that computerized research and analysis is faster and easier than research completed via non-digital channels. Search engines and online databases provide journalists with access to information that would otherwise require extensive skimming of books, encyclopedias, and paper archives. 

Some of the top reasons for utilizing CAJ include: 

  • Speed and accessibility of digital internet resources 
  • International connection to individuals and publications 
  • Simplified fact-checking and analysis 
  • Access to tools that compile and analyze data (such as spreadsheets and database analysis) 
  • More precise and accurate data analysis than can be acquired manually

Despite these many benefits, computer-assisted journalism also raises challenges. Journalists must be conscious of the sources they are analyzing and be able to identify faulty data, fabricated reports, and biased information. Though technology simplifies the crunching of numbers, journalists must remain discriminate of their sources and skeptical regarding the content aggregated online.

What is the history of CAR/CAJ? 

Computer-Assisted Journalism and Reporting began, in the most primitive sense, in the 1950's and 1960's. In 1952, CBS used computer analysis to determine the presidential election results. This became one of the first major instances of computer use in journalistic analysis. 

Perhaps the most noteworthy early example of CAJ took place after the Detroit riots of 1967. Using survey information that had been entered into a mainframe computer, reporter Philip Meyer was able to conclude that rioters were just as likely to be college graduates as they were to be high school dropouts. In later years, Meyer would go on to reiterate the importance of computerized surveys and database analysis in modern journalism, and continues to be a prominent figure in the field today. 

By the 1980's, computer database analysis had gone mainstream. By the early 2000's, Computer-Assisted Research had become the norm in the United States and around the world. The state of CAR remains much the same today, with computers, smartphones, and tablets becoming increasingly important research tools in the lives of journalists everywhere. The technique has ultimately resulted in faster and more precise analytic journalism.

What does the future of Computer-Assisted Journalism look like? 

Computer-Assisted Journalism is inevitably here to stay. The tools used in CAJ, however, are ever-changing and will likely branch out beyond standard computing in the future. It is likely that CAJ will soon be tied into the growing "Internet of Things," allowing journalists to analyze the data captured by our smart watches, smart thermostats, smart TVs, and more. As an increasing number of devices begin capturing our personal information and data, it will become easier to track, research, and analyze broad personal trends without even having to distribute surveys. Journalists will have to be progressive and learn how to process such vast amounts of data. Writers of the future will be required to find ways to compress this data into comprehensive articles and news stories. Journalism will increasingly rely on the copious amounts of data collected from social networks and internet-connected devices. The possibilities in the field of CAJ are truly limitless. 

Simply put, Computer-Assisted Journalism is a research technique that involves analysis of vast quantities of data. The search and analysis of database information has only been made simpler through computer technology, enabling journalists to discover patterns and complete research in a timely and reliable manner. This high-tech journalism technique will likely continue to grow and transform in the years to come.