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Turning a pile of PDFs into stories

Hands on a laptop keyboard

When the Idaho Statesman won the release of 8,000 documents from a health care antitrust case, Audrey Dutton was tasked to make sense of them. She explains how she did it with software: "I knew these documents held secrets. I knew they'd help our readers better understand the inner workings of health care. But I didn’t know how to organize them and make sense of hundreds of PDFs, especially without the context lawyers provide in a courtroom explaining their importance."

On balancing narrative and analysis

Writer at desk

Nicholas Lemann discusses the tension between getting the facts straight and telling a good story, and offers five pointers — such as "forming a hypothesis" — for keeping your reporting on the right track: "A central problem in the practice of journalism is that most of the time, we are trying to engage in narrative and analysis at the same time. They don’t naturally go together. Journalists more often unwittingly let the narrative distort the analysis than vice versa."

Some rules for good infographics

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Alberto Cairo's eight-year-old daughter asked him why the planets never stop spinning, and the search for an answer led him to create an infographic, which he presents along with some basic rules for designing good infographics: "No good infographic or data visualization … can be based on deficient data and analysis. The quality of your graphics depends fundamentally on the quality of your reporting or research, not just on how good a graphic designer you are."

Making sense of data in journalism

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The Tow Center for Digital Journalism has a new report that takes a step beyond the "how to" of data journalism and explains the underlying principles in common sense language, Shan Wang writes. A sample from the report: "Even simple counts break down when you have to count a lot of things. We’ve all sensed that large population figures are somewhat fictitious. Are there really 536,348 people in your hometown, as the number on the 'Welcome To …' sign suggests?"

Inside an Asian slave labor exposé

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Kristen Hare interviews Martha Mendoza about her Associated Press team's stories on slave labor on southeast Asian fishing boats, including her visit to a tiny Indonesian island: "After a few days, we were able to talk to dozens of fisherman, most from Myanmar. The level of desperation was staggering. Some were locked in a cage because they had asked to go home. A jungle-covered company graveyard held the bodies of more than 60 fishermen, most buried under fake names."

Fact-checking medical news stories

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Alexios Mantzarlis reaches out to Gary Schwitzer of HealthNewsReview.org for some fact-checking tips for medical stories. On relative vs. absolute risk: "A 50 percent relative reduction in the risk of contracting a certain disease sounds pretty impressive. But if that reduction means that patients in the control treatment had a two in 100 chance of contracting the malady while patients being studied had a 1 in 100 likelihood, the absolute risk reduction is 1 percent."

Getting a reluctant source to talk

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Amid the debate about anonymous sourcing, Steve Buttry looks at a related issue — persuading reluctant sources to talk: "I’m not talking here about dealing with a politician who’s trying to shut out the press in a fit of pique or a show of power," Buttry writes. "My focus here is on getting information from people who may know things that are helpful to your story but who have strong and valid reasons not to talk to you." More from Eric Nalder.

On building your own database

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William Heisel discusses a recent reporting project for which he could not find existing databases, so he built his own:"From dangerous doctors to dangerous candy to dangerous dirt, I have been involved in project after project that started with little more than an empty spreadsheet and the will to fill it. That will must endure, too. Because building a database can be extremely frustrating. It requires less technical know-how than you might think and lots of patience."

The challenge of mental health reporting

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Alayna Shulman landed a fellowship for mental health reporting at her small northern California newspaper, and she writes about some of the lessons she learned along the way to publishing her series of stories: "Sometimes in this industry, I feel like we’re so primed for data that there’s an implicit message that no data equals no story. But I trusted my instincts and made the fact that there is no data on the problem — and no direct effort to get it — the nut graph."

Crafting settings that work for readers

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Mary Buckham offers an excerpt from her book A Writer's Guide to Active Setting: "If the character is returning to a place that hasn’t been described in depth previously, the reader will not be as open to a slower pacing on the revisit so you can describe setting. The reader has most likely created her own visuals, because a reader needs to see the characters in some context. This is a small but important point, and an error many new writers make."