Computer-Assisted Reporting

Course Details

Course Number: MCOM 4223  Section Number: 101

Fall 2010

Location: Fain Fine Arts Center

Classroom Number: B124

Days & Times:

M W F 12:00-12:50

Course Attachments


no textbook required
I have decided not to require a textbook this semester; however, you will receive numerous handouts and exercises over the course of the semester.
MSU Faculty Member
Dr. Mitzi Lewis   
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Course Objectives

This course introduces you to techniques of computer-assisted reporting. Building upon your basic reporting and critical thinking skills, the course will show you how to use the computer as a tool in news gathering and data analysis. You will learn how to find and critically evaluate information from the Internet, principally the World Wide Web. Next, you will review statistics and mathematical relationships, such percentage change, and analyze data using a spreadsheet. You will download data from the Web and analyze it. These efforts will become the basis for asking questions for stories. The data analysis is only the beginning. Anyone familiar with a computer can squeeze answers out of a computer, but it takes a competent journalist to ask the right questions. You must determine the meaning of the information and show your viewers, readers, or listeners how it affects them.

Prerequisites: (1) News Writing and Reporting I and (2) Electronic News Gathering

By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  1. Define computer-assisted reporting
  2. Explain why journalists use computer assisted reporting
  3. Demonstrate how to find and retrieve data on the Internet
  4. Locate primary and secondary sources on the Internet
  5. Understand how to used this information to establish accountability and improve interview techniques
  6. Evaluate credibility of information found on the Internet
  7. Analyze data using Excel
  8. Use basic statistics to analyze data for reporting
  9. Display information visually using Excel
  10. Describe the uses of database managers
  11. Describe how to find data not on the Internet
  12. Explain how to build a database
  13. Fact-check data
  14. “Clean” data
  15. Recognize that computer-assisted reporting is just one tool in your arsenal; the fundamentals of reporting still apply: accuracy, clarity, fairness, news value, and, ultimately, good storytelling

After this course is over, the data skills you learn may slip away if you don’t use them. Even if this happens, my expectation is that two things will stick with you:

  • An understanding of how computer-assisted reporting can help your work.
  • A mindset where
  • you ask people you meet while reporting not just what they know but how they know it, and you ask to see the evidence, and
  • you always ask yourself the same question: What do I know and how do I know it?

Course Expectations

Class participation and attendance (also called professionalism): 10%

Projects: 30%

Exercises, homework and quizzes: 30%

Exams: 30%

  • I have decided not to require a textbook this semester; however, you will receive numerous handouts and exercises over the course of the semester.
  • USB flash drive - Bring this to class each day. You’ll be saving your work to this drive and to a second backup, not the lab computer hard drive. DO NOT USE YOUR USB FLASH DRIVE WITH OTHER COMPUTERS OR FOR OTHER LABS OR OTHER HOMEWORK. You are responsible for saving your work. Deadlines will not be extended due to loss of data. Always maintain at least two copies of important files on two separate volumes.
  • E-mail account
  • Internet access
  • Persistence, Patience, Optimism, and an Active Mind: Most of our work during the semester will take place in the computer lab. This room is equipped with 21 computers, a flatbed scanner, and several printers. The lab was set up as a place for creating complex digital projects and performing online operations. But computers are fairly elaborate machines, which means that there are many ways in which they can break down. In this course, we will be placing heavy demands on the lab’s hardware and software – as well as on our network capabilities – so be prepared for many strange and wondrous things. We will be discussing basic trouble-shooting techniques in class as issues arise. In many cases, however, you will need to be your own technological problem-solver – identifying problems and figuring out ways they can temporarily or permanently be solved. Techno-whining will not be tolerated.

Grading Standards

Submission Format Policy

Note: You may not submit a paper for a grade in this class that already has been (or will be) submitted for a grade in another course, unless you obtain the explicit written permission of me and the other instructor involved in advance.

Late Paper Policy
  • In the professional world, if you can’t show up on time and make your deadlines, you won’t keep your job. Assignments must be completed on time in the format specified.
  • Homework and projects are due at the beginning of class on the due date.

Plagiarism Policy Plagiarism is the use of someone else's thoughts, words, ideas, or lines of argument in your own work without appropriate documentation (a parenthetical citation at the end and a listing in "Works Cited")-whether you use that material in a quote, paraphrase, or summary. It is a theft of intellectual property and will not be tolerated, whether intentional or not.

Student Honor Creed

As an MSU Student, I pledge not to lie, cheat, steal, or help anyone else do so."

As students at MSU, we recognize that any great society must be composed of empowered, responsible citizens. We also recognize universities play an important role in helping mold these responsible citizens. We believe students themselves play an important part in developing responsible citizenship by maintaining a community where integrity and honorable character are the norm, not the exception. Thus, We, the Students of Midwestern State University, resolve to uphold the honor of the University by affirming our commitment to complete academic honesty. We resolve not only to be honest but also to hold our peers accountable for complete honesty in all university matters. We consider it dishonest to ask for, give, or receive help in examinations or quizzes, to use any unauthorized material in examinations, or to present, as one's own, work or ideas which are not entirely one's own. We recognize that any instructor has the right to expect that all student work is honest, original work. We accept and acknowledge that responsibility for lying, cheating, stealing, plagiarism, and other forms of academic dishonesty fundamentally rests within each individual student. We expect of ourselves academic integrity, personal professionalism, and ethical character. We appreciate steps taken by University officials to protect the honor of the University against any who would disgrace the MSU student body by violating the spirit of this creed. Written and adopted by the 2002-2003 MSU Student Senate.

Students with Disabilities The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal anti-discrimination statute that provides comprehensive civil rights protection for persons with disabilities. Among other things, this legislation requires that all students with disabilities be guaranteed a learning environment that provides for reasonable accommodation of their disabilities. If you believe you have a disability requiring an accommodation, please contact the Disability Support Services in Room 168 of the Clark Student Center, 397-4140.

Safe Zones Statement The professor considers this classroom to be a place where you will be treated with respect as a human being - regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, political beliefs, age, or ability. Additionally, diversity of thought is appreciated and encouraged, provided you can agree to disagree. It is the professor's expectation that ALL students consider the classroom a safe environment.

Contacting your Instructor All instructors in the Department have voicemail in their offices and MWSU e-mail addresses. Make sure you add your instructor's phone number and e-mail address to both email and cell phone lists of contacts.

Attendance Requirements

Attendance and participation are critical to your success. Another way to describe this is professionalism. Professionalism means that you’re here, ready to engage in new opportunities. You are expected to arrive on time, be prepared, actively participate, and stay for the full class period. If you miss class, you miss the chance to participate in your education and the education of others in class. If you miss class without an acceptable excuse you get a zero for that day’s participation and class work and any work that is due.

The acceptable excuses are: the death of a family member, personal illness, required attendance at an official school function, and verifiable emergency. You must notify me before you miss a class, except when an emergency happens on the way to class. If an emergency happens on the way to class, you must notify me on the same day. If I cannot be reached, leave a voice mail. My phone number is (940) 397-4375.

If you fail to notify me before missing a class you will receive a zero for work due and/or performed during that class unless it is a verifiable emergency.

Your illness must be serious to be excused. Thus, you must see a medical practitioner and get a signed note on official stationary from your doctor or the student health clinic.

For an official school function,you must present a signed note before missing class. The note must be on official school stationary, and it must be signed by the appropriate university official. If you do not have a signed note on official school stationary, you will receive a zero for the work due or that you missed.

For a death in the family, you must notify the instructor before missing class. When you return, you must give the instructor a copy of the program for the funeral. If you do not have a copy of the program, you will receive a zero for the work due or that you missed.

If you have an emergency, you must provide documentation to me, such as an accident report or towing bill. If you do not have documentation, you will receive a zero for the work due or that you missed.

When you have an acceptable excuse, you are responsible for finding out what you missed and arranging to make it up with the instructor. Missed work must be made up within one week of when your return to class, or you will receive a zero.

If you miss more than two classes, or if you are habitually late or leave early, your final grade may be lowered by 1/3 letter grade for each instance beyond two absences. If you have difficulty with the attendance and participation (professionalism) requirement, you may be dropped from the class.

I reserve the right to determine what, exactly, constitutes an excused absence or when a late arrival is excusable.

Some additional guidelines:

  • You are responsible for all material presented in every class period, whether present or not.
  • If you miss a class period you should obtain the material presented from another classmate. (I will not repeat lecture material that was missed. Handouts are available from my office.)

Other Policies

Policies: Classroom/Conduct/Academic Dishonesty

  • No cell phones, headphones, music, computer games, nor texting/IMing/e-mail/camera devices of any description are to be used during class: ZERO TOLERANCE. This means all aforementioned devices (and presently unknown versions of such) are to be turned off and out of your sight and mine.  This policy is based on my view that these things are distracting, hence counterproductive to the learning goals in this course.  Violation of this policy will be considered a conduct issue and an extremely bad plan.
  • Eating and drinking are not allowed by the computers because we are working with expensive equipment that can very easily be damaged by food or drink. Food and drink may be left on the bookcase by the door. Any misuse or abuse of equipment will result in expulsion from the lab for the semester and/or assessment of replacement/repair costs.
  • Students are expected to adhere to the Standards of Conduct as published in the Student Handbook. Students should refer to the current MSU student handbook and activities calendar for University policies and Student Honor Creed on academic dishonesty, class attendance, student’s rights, and activities.
  • The main statement from the MSU Student Honor Creed should be a guiding principal for you: “As an MSU student, I pledge not to lie, cheat, steal, or help anyone else to do so.”
  • I reserve the right to drop any student with an F if he/she engages in any form of academic dishonesty.  I further reserve the right to recommend other sanctions as may be appropriate.  Students are also encouraged to consult the following sources for additional discussion of students’ rights and responsibilities regarding cheating, attendance and general conduct:
  • The MSU Student Honor Creed
  • Pages 22-24, 84-89, 90 and 94-97 of the 2008-2010 MSU Undergraduate Catalog
  • Pages 4, 35-46, 55-80 of the 2009-2010 MSU Student Handbook (the handbook is also available online at
  • In addition, the university requires faculty to provide this statement to all students:“By enrolling in this course, the student expressly grants MSU a “limited right” in all intellectual property created by the student for the purpose of this course.  The “limited right” shall include but shall not be limited to the right to reproduce the student’s work product in order to verify originality and authenticity, and educational purposes.”
  • On the Internet, plagiarism is especially easy. DO NOT give in to the temptation to copy-and-paste other people’s work! Your work must be your own. If you plagiarize as a professional and get found out, you will damage if not destroy your own reputation and do great harm to the reputation of any organization you work for. In this class, plagiarism will have dire consequences.


Federal privacy law prohibits me from releasing information about students to certain parties outside of the university without the signed consent of the student.  Thus, in almost all cases I will not discuss your academic progress or other matters with your parents.  Please do not have them call me.  Regardless of these important legal considerations, it is my general policy to communicate with the students, not their parents, even when a student has signed a consent form.  College students are adults and are expected to behave accordingly.

Special Accommodations

If you need course adaptations or accommodations because of a disability, if you have emergency medical information that needs sharing, or if you need special accommodations in case the building must be evacuated, please make an appointment with me as soon as possible.

Final Caveat: I reserve the right to change any part of this syllabus for any reason. This includes changing or deleting assignments. Sufficient notice will be given to you if changes to the syllabus are necessary.

By accepting this syllabus and staying enrolled in this course, you are indicating that you understand and accept the terms of this syllabus.


Thanks to Bill Dedmon, David Herzog, and Stan Ketterer who generously allowed me to use and adapt portions of their work, to Naoma Clark and Jim Sernoe who allowed me to adapt portions of their classroom policies, and to Kimberly Sultze of Saint Michael’s College for sharing her intellectual requirements.

Writing Proficiency Requirement All students seeking a Bachelor's degree from Midwestern State University must satisfy a writing proficiency requirement once they've 1) passed English 1113 and English 1123 and 2) earned 60 hours. You may meet this requirement by passing either the Writing Proficiency Exam or English 2113. Please keep in mind that, once you've earned over 90 hours, you lose the opportunity to take the $25 exam and have no option but to enroll in the three-credit hour course. If you have any questions about the exam, visit the Writing Proficiency Office website at, or call 397-4131.