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Knight Center course teaches journalists how to use computer assisted reporting techniques on the job

The first time Isabela Horta heard of “computer assisted reporting” was during an ABRAJI (Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism) conference last year. Where she studies, at the University of Brasilia, it’s still a relatively new and under-used technique that most professors don’t teach, she said.

As such, Horta, an intern at TV news SBT Brasil, decided to enroll in the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas’ online course, Introduction to Computer Assisted reporting. The course, taught by Brazilian journalist José Roberto de Toledo, ran April 12-May 9, 2010.

For more details about the course, see the Course Information Sheet.

“It’s useless to tell everything I learned,” Horta said. “Everyday there was something new to learn!”

The online course in Portuguese was aimed at journalists who wanted to learn how to better use the computer for conducting investigations. Throughout the course, which the Knight Center has offered three times, journalists learned advanced Internet search techniques, how to develop their own databases, and how to use Excel to analyze information.

One journalist who enrolled in the class, Rodrigo Piscitelli, said he did so out of “need and curiosity.”

“The enormous quantity of information available on the Internet and the available tools cannot be ignored by journalists or they risk becoming archaic in these ‘new times,’” said Piscitelli, a former newspaper reporter and editor who currently works in television news and is a journalism professor.

Toledo, the Knight Center course instructor, said he was impressed by the high level of student participation, both in terms of the online discussion forums and the homework exercises.

Besides the techniques of research, calculation and assembly of databases, Toledo said, he hoped students learned to “develop a working method to filter, organize, connect and synthesize information. Based on exercise performance, I believe a good part accomplished that goal.”

For Horta, the most interesting part of the course was learning about the Atlas of Human Development.

“I was impressed with the tables and tools that the Atlas presents,” she said. “When performing the exercises, I was thinking of stories and looking forward to updating the program with Census 2010. But most importantly, as I said, I was learning to cross data, interviewing the numbers and find the information and news that they may have.”

Piscitelli also said he realized the importance of what data can reveal, learning how to search for data, and then how to use it.

Both Horta and Piscitelli said they will be able to use what they learned in the course in their daily jobs.

Horta, who said she will be able to use “everything” she learned in the class on the job, specifically mentioned how the computer assisted reporting techniques could help her cover the upcoming elections and campaign contributions.

Considering that public information is becoming increasingly transparent, and the government is posting more data on the Internet every day, Piscitelli said, the Knight Center course has given him the ability to know where to find precious data and then compare it.

“Discovering the importance of how to organize databases and to know how to use them is essential in journalism, as it expedites the work (in that it facilitates the gathering of information), diversifies the sources and allows broader examination of a particular subject.”

Even Toledo said he, too, learned something from the course.

“I always learn something new: a Web site, a program, software, a different way of doing something we already do, or I remember something I had forgotten,” he said. “This course was no exception. And the group exchanged great tips on news sites, of which I have benefited.”

Toledo, one of the founders of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism and PrimaPagina, is a pioneer in the use of computer assisted reporting in Brazil.

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin was launched in 2002 by professor Rosental Calmon Alves. Thanks to generous grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the center has assisted thousands of journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean. For more information, contact the Knight Center’s program manager, Jennifer Potter-Miller at jpotterandreu@mail.utexas.edu or +1 512 471-1391.