Wick Communications

The national portrait

In journalism on 19 Nov 2010 at 11:20 am

As you undoubtedly know, the decennial U.S. Census is all but complete and the U.S. Census Bureau will begin rolling out numbers virtually any day now.

In the past, each new census has been a treasure trove of raw material for engaged journalists. The census has asked for all kinds of information about ethnicity and education and economic standing. For better or worse, that has all changed. The 2010 questionnaire included only 10 questions, making it one of the most succinct censuses in the nation’s history. Does that mean it will be less useful for demographers and journalists?

In a word: yes … but don’t despair.

The U.S. Census is required in the Constitution and is the basis for the apportionment of the U.S. House of Representatives. The numbers add up to big money. About $400 billion in federal money is tied to the census figures each year.

The idea is to “develop a portrait of the nation,” explains Hans Johnson, director of research for the Public Policy Institute of California, echoing the bureau’s mythology. Johnson spoke about the importance of the census during a recent journalism class at the University of California, Berkeley.

Johnson told the class that political consensus constrained this year’s census. Those in charge chafed at some of those old questions; suddenly asking about money and all the rest became an invasion of privacy. As a result, expect less from this year’s census…

Demographers aren’t grousing too much, however, because of the relatively expansive annual American Community Surveys. These are large-scale surveys, conducted by the Census Bureau, that ask many questions and in some ways replace the old long-form questionnaires. They provide important information you can access annually.

You can expect the Census Bureau to send press releases as it announces each rollout and I’m sure the big national media will alert us all to the numbers that deserve localizing.

Finding information on your own on the Census Bureau Web site is more difficult than it ought to be. Here’s the drill:

  1. Go to www.census.gov
  2. Click American FactFinder on the lefthand bar.
  3. Then click “Data sets” on the left.
  4. From there you can go to American Community Surveys or the decennial censuses or other sets.

Then you have to toy with it to get what you want. You might have more luck just looking at the links provided – sometimes they have already pulled out the numbers you are looking for.

Johnson noted a number of other important sources of demographic data worth mentioning. The U.S. Department of Education (and many state agencies) compile demographic info on students and often you can make assumptions about the communities as a whole based on those student numbers. In addition, the Federal Housing Finance Agency compiles housing information, as do private concerns like Zillow and Case-Shiller. If you are really feeling enterprising, check out ipums.umn.edu. With a little Internet savvy and some elbow grease you can make your own tables based on your own queries. It isn’t for the timid, though. Don’t expect to go to the University of Minnesota site on deadline and get something you can write up 15 minutes later.

So why bother? Do we really have time for all this?

Well… sometimes you need to make time, because demographic information can transform your pedestrian daily story into an award-winner. It ain’t easy. But it’s worth doin’.



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