Note: This document is subject to change; if it does, students will be notified. Last updated December 17, 2008.

SMPA 130

Computer-Assisted Reporting

Class Time: Thurs. 7:10-9:40 p.m.

Instructor: Derek Willis

Contact Details: Students may feel free to contact me via phone or email. My work number is 202-904-1168, but the best way to reach me is by email at dwillis AT My AIM is derekpwillis.

Course Objective: The aim of this class is to teach students how to identify, obtain, analyze and incorporate data into their stories. In practical terms, this means learning to use spreadsheets, databases and the Internet to further reporting. Along the way we’ll also cover new ways to retrieve and process information, and what the Internet means for the next class of journalists. This class is skills-based, and therefore we will spend at least half of each class working on the computers, so a familiarity with PCs is essential.

Readings: There are no textbooks for this course. We will have weekly readings of stories/series with significant CAR work and other readings from the Web.

Grading: Each student’s final grade will be determined by five factors described below. While I will communicate any concerns that I have about individual performance, please do not hesitate to contact me with questions about grading or general performance.

In-class and homework assignments: Students will be required to complete exercises involving the use of spreadsheets, databases and other CAR tools both during class and outside of class. It is your responsibility to find computer time for the outside assignments, except for a few occasions when we work on them in class. All assignments are to be handed in at the beginning of each class. Late work will be penalized on a sliding scale (the later the assignment, the larger the penalty). A good rule: don’t come to class empty-handed – at the very least, show me that you attempted the assignment. These assignments constitute 20 percent of each student’s grade.

Written critiques: Each student will complete three written critiques of stories/series that made use of CAR techniques. These critiques can address all aspects of the work but remain primarily focused on the use of CAR by the reporters. While you may not be able to replicate the reporters’ work, try to put yourself in their shoes and judge the decisions they made. Think of these as mini-book reviews, although I expect between 500-750 words for each. Combined, these critiques make up 15 percent of each student’s grade.

Mid-term analysis: Each student will be responsible for obtaining and importing data in order to answer a series of questions designed to test the ability to “interview” data through queries and other functions. This assignment constitutes 15 percent of each student’s grade.

Group project: Students will be divided into groups to work together to obtain and analyze data and write a story memo about their findings. Each student is expected to contribute to each portion of the process. Each group must submit a proposed topic or question to write about by late March, although earlier submissions are welcomed. While some in-class project time will be provided, prepare to spend significant time outside class working on this assignment. Each group will be required to hand in a well-written memo describing the work done on the project and the underlying data. In addition, each student will write a second memo describing how the work was done and each student’s role. The memo should also address any weaknesses in the data or unexpected events that hampered or improved the process. The group project will make up 35 percent of each student’s grade.

Attendance and participation: Journalism is not a passive activity and requires focus, inquisition and involvement. We will be discussing CAR stories every week, and I expect your comments, questions and other contributions to our class. None of this can happen if you don’t show up. These factors constitute 15 percent of your final grade.

Academic Integrity: George Washington University has a code of academic integrity. You should read it, even if you’re not intending to violate it. Academic dishonesty will not be tolerated and will result in a failing grade for that assignment; as in professional journalism, you are responsible for doing your own work.

DSS Statement

Any student who feels s/he may need an accommodation based on the impact of a disability should contact the Disability Support Services office at 202-994-8250 in the Marvin Center, Suite 242, to establish eligibility and to coordinate reasonable accommodations. At a student’s request, DSS prepares an individualized letter to professors which verifies the nature of the student’s disability and documents the need for auxiliary aids and services and/or academic adjustments. Students are encouraged to meet with each professor early in the semester to discuss the academic implications of the disability as they relate to the specific course and to request accommodation. For additional information please refer to:

UCC Statement

The University Counseling Center (UCC) assists students in addressing personal, social, career, and study problems that can interfere with their academic progress and success.

Services for students include:

We encourage students to check out our website and to call us with their questions!


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