How to find hidden gems in census data

May 20, 2022 in Data Journalism
A man reviewing data on his laptop.

Census reports offer a treasure trove of information if you know how to use them. That’s where data gurus like Paul Overberg enter the picture.

As part of the Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) data team, Overberg uses the U.S. Census Bureau’s reports to uncover “hidden gems” – important stories that otherwise might not be told without having a proper understanding of data.  

For example, in the front-page article “Rural America is the New `Inner City,’” the WSJ’s analysis of census data helped reveal a major socioeconomic shift: Since the 1990s, sparsely populated counties have replaced large cities as America’s most troubled areas by key measures such as divorce rates, poverty and opioid use that increase crime.

In their research, reporters scrutinized social indicators and trends over time to uncover the story. “We could see that rural areas were falling behind because of demographic shifts over the last 10 to 15 years. The data indicated a flip from what most people were familiar with. That was surprising to us,” said Overberg, who co-authored the story.  

Almost every country gathers information about their population, economy, immigration and other topics the media routinely covers. While these data points are great sources of information for journalists, going into these reports cold can be overwhelming.  

Overberg, who coaches journalists on how to use census reports, offered the following tips and resources for deciphering mountains of data. Here’s what he recommends: 

  • Start with what you know and work from there. Overberg suggests focusing on your community and the changes you see going on around you. To get up to speed, start with simple comparisons. What was the migrant makeup of the community a decade ago? What is it today? Is it up or down? What impact has it had?

The Census Bureau’s annual  American Community Survey (ACS)  is “a data factory, cranking out new snapshots for everything -- from a town of 400 to New York City -- and all the different aspects of change taking place in communities,” said Overberg, who wrote a guide on what journalists need to know about using ACS data. 

  • Begin by asking the clearest question you want to try and answer. A mentor gave Overberg this advice early in his data journalism career, and it has stuck with him ever since. An example might be: What share of the population in my community was born abroad? If the number has doubled in 10 years, what does that say about where you live? A clear question can lead to a variety of issues that merit further investigation.
  • Talk to experts who do this for a living. For example, Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), a federally mandated agency that provides input on the use of transportation funds. It looks at population trends, where people live, and what commutes are like, among other information. Overberg also pointed to two international programs, Our World in Data and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as helpful tools. 

Census reports provide a myriad of indicators about each person counted, including their age, sex, marital status, and household size. Migration and international trade are also a part of the mix.

“To me, the wonderful part about the U.S. census is the wide range of topics the bureau collects. If you spend time looking within the data, good stories will pop up,” said Steve Doig, a data journalism professor at Arizona State University

Doig described two types of census stories: those that regularly deal with census count (such as what regions are gaining or losing people), and stories that are about something else entirely, but use census data to add evidence or facts to the reporting. For an article about a town plagued by violent crime, for instance, reporters might use census data to show which neighborhoods are the most vulnerable.

After consulting the data, reporters can then go to the scene, knock on doors and add a human voice to the story. “Census data can lead to reporting on how people are affected by change,” said Doig, formerly an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald

He recommends that journalists look at the variables in census reports and imagine what kind of story could be told about any one of them. “That was the key to how I used census data throughout my career at the Herald,” said Doig.

Doig advises going to and to start exploring. For foreign reporters, he also recommends checking U.S. trade data on what your country is sending to the U.S., and what the U.S. is sending your way. “The census is a great tool for international journalists,” said Doig, who has conducted media training abroad.  

To find “hidden treasures” in census data, Brant Houston, chair in investigative and enterprise reporting at the University of Illinois and a long-time investigative reporter, points to the big three: Patterns, trends and outliers. The “QuickFacts” section is a good place to start, according to Houston.  Enter a state, county or city, click on “select a fact” and statistics on age and sex, income and poverty, internet and computer use will pop up.

“The Census Bureau has collected information on almost any topic you are searching for. There are endless story possibilities,” said Houston. He recommends the “Census Academy,” part of the bureau’s educational arm, for self-training on how to use this mega resource. “Help is there if you take the time to look for it,” he said.

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Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash.