October 11, 2012 in Community, Craft, Resources

Economic issues have taken center stage in this year’s elections, as the United States continues to stagger from the effects of recession and the 2008 global banking crisis. Candidates for federal, state and local offices are looking to tap into voter discontent about issues like unemployment, home foreclosures and the government spending.

It can be tough for journalists to make sense out of candidates’ claims. So the Sunlight Foundation and Investigative Reporters and Editors have teamed up to offer this guide to some of the most authoritative economic data sets. We’ll provide an explanation of what the indicators really mean, their weaknesses and how they are created. Also, we’ll point you to the data and documentation so you can explore for yourself.

We trust these resources will help you better cover the key issues of this election.” Source: EconoCheck

36 responses to EconoCheck

  1. Hi everybody and welcome to this live Q&A with David Herzog, who helped launch EconoCheck this fall. Check out his bio on the upper right of this page – he’s a long-time data expert with roots in investigative reporting. The aim of this conversation is to get more insight into how to get the most out of EconoCheck and think about how it might improve to serve publishers and reporters. We’re expecting Mark Horvit, Executive Director of Investigative Reporters and Editors to stop by as well. IRE and Sunlight Foundation collaborated on EconoCheck. So Mark, when you’re here, jump in and say hello. And welcome David! Thanks for being here!

    • Hi Emily, thanks for having me here to talk about EconoCheck. I’m happy to talk about the project and how journalists and others can use it to fact check economic claims.

      • We’ll chat for the next hour or so. If you want to join in during this live chat, please sign in to the JA then just jump right in the thread. You can sign in by choosing your preferred social network, where you have an existing profile, and click on that social icon button on the upper right of this page. To post, write in the comment box at the top of the thread or reply below an already posted comment. To see what’s new, refresh your screen, or check your email box.

        If you’re reading this after the live chat window, comments and questions are still welcome! The conversation thread remains open and active, so you can post a question or comment anytime and anyone who’s participated will get an email notification so they can respond.

        If you are a Twitter fan, we have set up #JAEconochkQA to share there as well.

        That’s logistics! David, could you first tell me: why this particular project at this particular time?

      • IRE was a collaborator on a grant that the Sunlight Foundation had gotten from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation a couple of years ago. As time progressed our two organizations agreed that it would be great to create a resource for journalists and citizens that could help them understand how economic data are created and provide direct links to those data sets. We all know that economic issues would be a big deal in the 2012 elections, so the project made sense to us.

      • It’s structured in a way that gives an easy entry to data. For people who haven’t looked at it yet, you’ve essentially picked a couple dozen providers of economic data, in a handful of major topic areas (housing, health care, taxes, prices, spending and jobs), then provided some basic background information about what purpose the data serves, and provided links to go straight to it. I particularly like the “Good to know” feature that adds helpful context/tips and pitfalls.

        Were you able to survey what other aggregators were available, to see what specific need you could fulfill? Who did you imagine your primary “customer” would be?

      • We intentionally built the site so it would be easy to navigate. Journalists on deadline are our primary audience right now, kept the design simple, allowing them to drill down to the information that they need. The “Good to Know” feature is something that we adapted from that we provide to IRE members who buy data from our database library.

      • We did look at a bunch of different resources on the web. I know that the folks at Sunlight, headed by editorial director Bill Allison, had already scoured federal government websites for data. I also looked at some sites, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Federal Reserve banks. Bill and I had a number of conversations and narrowed down the two dozen numbers that we thought were the most important in terms of the elections and economy. If other issues arise, we can add information about other data sets to EconoCheck.

  2. EconoCheck pulled together resources to help reporters learn about and fact-check economic claims during the 2012 campaign. Now the election is over, we talk with co-creator David Herzog about what measureable impact this resource had, how reporters might use it and how he might seek to improve it in the future. Join us in a live Q&A on Tuesday, November 20, at 2 PM Eastern / 11 AM Pacific. Did you try to track down any economic claims of a candidate or campaign? What do you think about the way EconoCheck presents tools and information? You can start the conversation right now with your stories or questions.

    • Hello David and Emily. My question is to David.

      Aside from having available the Econocheck, don’t journalists have a responsibility to report to the public without bias?

      • Can I add to that? David, is there bias inherent in data?

      • Yes, journalists definitely need to strive to report without bias and cut through the spin that happens in political campaigns (any beyond). What we’ve always promoted here at IRE is using source data and documents to report on what’s really happening To that end, EconoCheck is a good tool, because it allows journalists and other to independently test what others are saying about the economy. (More)

      • In terms of bias in the data, it’s always good for journalists to know how the data are collected. What’s there? What’s missing? A lot of the economic figures we talk about on EconoCheck are gathered with surveys, which means the numbers are mere estimates. Numbers are squishy.

      • Do you know of any instances where reporting data in context (explaining what’s “squishy”) has led to a change in the way that data is collected?

      • It’s also important to let an audience know where the numbers a journalist cites are coming from. EconoCheck steers journalists to reliable sources for stats and numbers, and then as long as journalists attribute the numbers they use to those sources, the public can decide how credible it thinks they are.

      • Politution – you’re a talk show host. How do you bring data into your conversations?

      • Hi Mark, thanks for joining in! I know this was designed with Election 2012 in mind. What do you want to do with it next? We work a lot with small, startup investigative or community publishers who are super busy doing a million things for their organizations. How could you make it even more useful to publishers, and reporters?

      • We’re looking at that now, and talking with our partners at the Sunlight Foundation, and will have more to announce soon. There are plenty of potential uses for the data in EconoCheck that go far beyond the election, as economic data can be a bedrock of many stories, or can be something that answers a quick question or adds depth.

      • If anyone joining in today has suggestions or ideas, we’d be very thankful for the input.

      • Without jumping any announcements, what might you imagine? For example, I can see an easy feed of contextualized economic data potentially serving a small publisher. A story about local economic trends that updates itself and shows up on the front page…

        A second question also, Mark: I realize your target audience is reporters and David mentioned in this conversation spreading the word through IRE workshops, etc., which seems like a smart strategy. But you’ve provided such a nice wrap-around of context for the datasets you link to, that it seems like EconoCheck could also be useful for people who do not traditionally mine economic data for stories or informing their communities. How do you imagine you might break that barrier with this or something like it?

      • Hi. I’ve been looking at your tool, and I was wondering if you have any concrete examples of how it works, or any stories people have written using results from the tool? I am thinking of using it to do research on a very small community.

      • I can’t think of any recent instances where reporting by journalists has led to a revision in data-collection methods. However, the National Association of Realtors in 2011 did lower its home sales figures after other researchers questioned the group’s methods.

      • Yes I am a show host. I use several resources to gather my information. From Fact Check sites to the archives and government web sites. I also bring in non-partisan guests to discuss the issues.

        What I have found is that there is factual information on the government sites. You have to look for it.And never rely on just one source. I pull all the documentation I can before I jump to conclusions. Its not an exact science because there is so much misinformation out there.

        Importantly, I rely on very little of what the media reports because all too often they highlight something that leans towards their way of thinking. Rather than reporting on all of the facts equally. It is not easy gathering the facts because there is so much bias.

      • So, Politution, how could EconoCheck structure their entry into data in a way that would be MOST helpful to you?

      • We’ve been digging around for some examples, but haven’t found any yet, unfortunately. Our tool is still pretty new and we hope to spread the word more by integrating it more into IRE training, which we do a lot of. I’d love to hear how you think it could help you.

      • David, you’ve been in data digging and reporting for a long time. As you were putting this tool together, did anything surprise you, or was there anything you found lacking – data you think would be really useful to have?

      • For me its all about the documentation. We want to see the documents that support fact checks.

      • Ramiro – how small is the community you are looking to report on? Because all these data sets are national – right David? How can people use this to report on their communities?

      • I was hoping to be able to apply it to economic claims made by politicians in my city (Burlington, VT). So I suppose that wouldn’t be plausible. Maybe that is a suggestion for future improvements, if possible? Being able to shorten the scale?

      • Emily, the biggest takeaway for me was getting reminded, over and over, that statistics are numbers created by people and thus are flawed. As I mentioned before, a lot of the key indicators are based on surveys, so they are only estimates. Sometimes agencies use old data. For instance, if the U.S. DOT lacks a state’s vehicle registration data, it sometimes uses data from an earlier year.

      • If you’re chasing data that isn’t contextualized on EconoCheck, how do you find the context that helps you identify the flaws? I would imagine there’s some documentation around the data to check, but also perhaps real-life sources to check with?

      • Some of the data that’s referenced on EconoCheck does go down to the metropolitan statistical area, so you might be able to use some, assuming it’s on point with what you’re reporting. You bring up a good point for us: most reporting that’s local demands more fine-grained data that U.S. source offer.

      • Thank you so much for your input, David. I really appreciate what you are trying to do with this tool and I look forward to exploring the possibilities for its use.

      • Yes, this was a good point that Politution made, too. Journalists should read any documentation (including any original survey forms) that accompanies online data. Read the FAQs, read the About the data pages. Look for contact information so you can find the experts if you need help understanding the data. In my experience, the people who create the data are happy to help journalists understand it better.

      • Dig and dig some more! Thank you very much for helping us dig into EconoCheck more, and please do share here any new tweaks, additions, iterations, etc. Very nice to talk with you!

      • Thanks for having me Emily, I enjoyed the chat and am looking forward to more conversations and suggestions!

      • I wanted to jump in and answer a couple of points that came up earlier. As far as reaching beyond the journalism community, I agree that EconoCheck has all sorts of value to many other professions and members of the general public. While many of the items on our website are for IRE members only, EconoCheck is open to anyone. We do have some experience with creating tools with utility beyond journalism. is an online tool that makes Census data easy to find, use and compare. While it was designed with journalists in mind, it’s been used by a much larger constituency (my daughter used it for a school project). The trick for us is getting the word out beyond our normal circles. I think that with the Census tool, a lot of that came from people who ran across it through Google (or other search engines), then helped spread the word. News organizations also sometimes referenced it in artiicles. (The fact that the name is also the website address helped, I think). Hopefully something like that can happen with EconoCheck as well, especially once it’s not tied so specifically to the election.

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