Syllabus 3004 Fall 2016

University of King’s College
JOUR 3004, Advanced Reporting 1
Fall term 2016-2017
Tuesdays Sept. 6 to Nov. 29
3:35 to 5:25, Computer Lab 1, A&A Building
No class November 8, fall study week
Instructor: Prof. Fred Vallance-Jones, 902-422-1271 or
Twitter: @Fvjones DM me; my DMs are open
Office hours: One hour before class and after class. Email checked in the early morning and at the end of the day, weekdays only. Do not send sensitive, personal information via email or Twitter. Doing so constitutes your consent to store such information on a computer server located outside of Canada.


These days, information is everywhere. It comes at us from every direction, through social media posts, online data, the news media, academic journals, our friends and family….in short, anywhere we turn. It’s easy enough to be swamped by information, yet have little coherent knowledge.

This is a course about improving our understanding of advanced reporting methods using text and data, so we can know more, and therefore find and tell better stories.
The material is roughly divided into three sections. In the first part of the course, students will learn how to use online and official public records to find deep information on both people and organizations.  Each student will pick one prominent figure (and associated organization) to research throughout this part of the course. They’ll write three research notes for their editor (me!) based on this research, and write a news feature based on the research, due later in the term.

Students will also file a freedom of information request, follow it throughout the term, and write a reflective memo on both their experience and the FOI system in general. We’ll discuss the progress of requests throughout the semester.

In the second part of the course, students will learn about data-driven research methods, and learn to use a spreadsheet program to do simple data analysis (don’t worry, it sounds scarier than it is).

The final third of the course is a thorough review of the essential math needed by journalists. Students will build on the spreadsheet skills they learned in the second part of the course and learn how to crunch simple datasets and create interactive visualizations.

We wrap up with the WWF challenge, when you’ll bring all your skills together for a friendly competition.

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

*Search various public records, obtain relevant information from them, and combine information from different sources.
*Find stories in research
*Background an individual in depth.
*Integrate research from different sources into one piece of journalism.
*Use social media in your research.
*Navigate an open-data site, and import a small dataset for simple analysis in a spreadsheet program.
*Create simple online visualizations.
*File a simple FOI request and follow it through the process.
*Use correctly the fundamental math required of journalists, including averages, medians and modes, percentages and rates.
*Report critically and knowledgably on public opinion polls.


Math Tools for Journalists, Second Edition ( Kathleen Woodruff Wickham)
Data Literacy: A User’s Guide (David Herzog)

Both are available in the bookstore

FOI fee

Students will be responsible for filing one freedom of information request. The requests usually have a fee of $5.00, about the price of a fancy cup of coffee. If you have your own chequing account, you can write your own cheque for the fee, if online filing isn’t available. If you don’t have a chequing account, bring your completed request and addressed envelope to class along with the fee in cash, and I will mail it for you, and include a cheque. Some requests can be filed online using a credit card.

Assignments and weights

This is a hands on class, so we have a number of small assignments/tests, and one bigger one. Your lowest mark among the assignments marked with an asterisk will be dropped from calculating your final grade.

10%* Research note draft 1
10%* Research note draft 2
10%* Research note draft 3
25% News feature story
10%* Data assignment 1
10%* Data assignment 2
10%* Data assignment 3
10%             Math test
10%             FOI assignment
5% Participation in World Wresearch Federation (WWF) Championships

Assignment details

Freedom of Information request assignment:  Students will file a freedom of information request early in the term, taking the topic from a list of requests provided by the instructor or, better, devising his or her own request. Each student will follow the progress of their request, and respond as necessary to any questions from government bureaucrats (if they throw you a zinger, tweet at me for advice, or DM me). Hand in copies of all correspondence, a brief summary of the status of the request as of the last week of classes, and copies of documents received.  Write a 1,500-word memo reflecting on your experience and the broader FOI process. Readings will be provided to assist with the latter.

Research notes:  Based on your research on your chosen public figure and associated organization, you will background your editor on what you have found, and identify angles for your news feature. The second and third notes are not completely new documents, but build on the previous notes. As you add more details based on new research skills introduced in class, you will be expected to “connect the dots” and show how each new piece of information fits into the whole. This whole will likely evolve as you find out more. You will also be expected to incorporate the feedback you receive from your instructor on earlier drafts, in subsequent notes. The research notes must be accompanied by a Google spreadsheet tracking key details and dates. You will share the Google sheet with the Google account when you hand in the first note, then continue to add to it. Attach new documents you find to each research note, in paper form. An example research note will be provided.

News feature:  You will write a news feature story of at least 1,500 words grounded in the research on your prominent individual and organization. This should be a focused news feature with a hard news angle, not a summary of your research. The story must include multiple facts gleaned from your research, and you must do at least four interviews.

Data assignments: Two hands-on assignments in which you will employ the data research techniques taught in class.

Numeracy test: At the end of our math section, we’ll have an in-class test. It will be closed book, and you’ll use your spreadsheet program for calculations.

WWF (World Wresearch Federation). During the last class, teams will compete for small prizes and a grand prize of a free movie pass for each member of the overall winning team. WWF is a fast-paced game in which you use the research methods taught in class, under time pressure. Be careful how you answer each question; there are no second chances for a team until every other team has had a crack at a question.

Assignments on paper

Most assignments will be handed in on paper, usually at the start of the class when they are due. Do not send assignments by email unless directed. Spreadsheets should be handed in as directed in class. Please keep a copy of your work as a backup in case something you have handed in goes astray. You just never know.

Deadlines are not suggestions

Any assignment not handed in on time will be docked 10 per cent of its potential mark for each day or portion that it is late (e.g. An assignment worth 10 per cent handed in five minutes late will lose one percentage point. A day later, it will have lost two, and a day after that, three. Once you enter the fourth day late, the assignment will receive 0. There are no exceptions and no individual extensions, except for documented illness. Documentation must be provided within one week of the missed work, unless a longer period is necessitated by the illness itself.

Sometimes, assignment extensions are given for the whole class, in which case the above rules apply to the new deadline.

Other important rules

1. No interviews with friends, other students or relatives

For any assignments requiring interviews, you may not interview friends, family members (near or distant) or high school or undergraduate students (college or university) for any assignment, without first making the case for the interview to me and receiving written permission from me. If you include such an interview in a story, without written permission, you will have to redo the assignment using other sources or you will receive an automatic 0 on the assignment. This applies whether I learn of such an interview before or after I mark the assignment.

Why this rule? It is often an easy shortcut to call up someone you know from your hometown, or from another school, or who is in your near or distant family, especially if you are trying to do an assignment at the last moment (always a bad idea). There may be occasions when such interviews are justified, but these are few and far between.

2. Misspelled names result in 0s.

One thing will get you an instant 0 on an assignment: misspelling someone’s name. This applies without exception for names of people. There is no opportunity to make up such assignments, so go through and verify the spelling of all names before you hand in an assignment. The best source of spelling is the person him or herself, so make sure you ask and repeat back the spelling.

Why this rule? Misspelling someone’s name is a sign of sloppiness and disrespect. It hurts people and earns you a bad reputation. It is a cardinal sin of journalism, and therefore a cardinal sin in this class.

In-class protocol

¥ Turn off cell phones and mobile electronic devices before the start of class.
¥ Computers monitors should be off unless we are actively using the computers in class. Studies have shown it is not possible to learn effectively when you are trying to send unrelated emails, check your Facebook, etc. Please don’t do so.
¥ I do notice transgressions of the above and have a practiced glare. I am not afraid to use it. All of these things not only interfere with your learning, but with that of those near you.
¥ If you are having problems with course material, see me as soon as possible.


I know school is tough and sometimes you find yourself juggling ten things at once. I do not keep attendance. However, if you do miss a class, you are responsible for catching up on the content yourself. You cannot make up missed in-class tests and assignments except in cases of documented illness.

Additional departmental policies


All students are expected to familiarize themselves with and abide by the School of Journalism’s ethics code available at


All students are expected to read the School’s safety guidelines available at To do journalism well, you must sometimes be uncomfortable. You should never be unsafe. If you run into trouble, or if you feel a situation might put your or others’ personal safety at risk, bail out and call your instructor right away.

Inclusive Behaviour

King’s prides itself on inclusiveness and respect for others. Our classrooms and newsrooms are public spaces in which racist, sexist, homophobic or intolerant comments or humour will not be tolerated. Do not screen such videos, images or web pages on school equipment or in school facilities. Offensive behaviour is not just disrespectful to your colleagues and to your profession; it may constitute harassment under the King’s Code of Conduct. For more information, read the code of conduct at

Intellectual Honesty

Plagiarism is stealing someone else’s work and presenting it as your own. It is a form of academic fraud and if you do it, you can end up in big trouble. The most common cases of plagiarism involve students who cut and paste material from the Internet or copy something without giving the original author credit. In journalism, giving credit is called attribution. Do not cut and paste. Do attribute your sources. Do not work with other students on an assignment unless this is specifically directed.

Plagiarism is a serious academic offence. The punishments can range from getting zero on the assignment, failing the course or being suspended or expelled from the university. So it’s in your best interest to adopt good habits when it comes to sourcing material. For more information, go to King’s website and find the section Intellectual Honesty on page 33 of the 2016-17 academic calendar.

Contacting the Police

It is departmental policy that students must talk to their instructor before they contact Halifax Regional Police or the RCMP. On approval of a request, the student must send the police an email from their official school account that is cc’d to the instructor.


Students may request accommodation as a result of barriers related to disability, religious obligation, or any characteristic under the human rights legislation.
Students who require academic accommodation for either classroom participation or the writing of tests and exams should make their request to the Advising and Access Services Centre (AASC) prior to or at the outset of the regular academic year. Please visit Academic Support at for more information and to obtain the Request for Accommodation form.

A note taker may be required as part of a student’s accommodation. There is an honorarium of $75/course/term (with some exceptions). If you are interested, please contact AASC at 494-2836 for more information.
Please note that your classroom may contain specialized accessible furniture and equipment. It is important that these items remain in the classroom, untouched, so that students who require their usage will be able to fully participate in the class.

Tentative list of classes, subject to change both as to content and order.

Section 1: Shoeleather Research

1. Sept. 6 Introduction to the class and methodical research that connects the dots rather than focusing on them individually. Making the most of your online searches. How to make and keep track of a FOI request. Introduction to the Google tracking sheet.
Suggested topics for FOI requests to be handed out, as well as list of prominent
individuals/organization for the research memos and news feature

By next week: sign up for a prominent individual on list on my office door, or choose your own after consulting with me.

2. Sept. 13 Finding out what people own and what it’s worth. Property records, real estate and assessment records.
Freedom of Information request is due for mailing.

3. Sept. 20 Records about businesses; registry of joint stocks, federal corporations registry, public company records.

DUE AT START OF CLASS: Research note draft 1 (incorporating online/social media searches and property/assessment records)

4. Sept 27 Records from the legal system. Lawsuits, bankruptcies, foreclosures and search warrants. Online court records through
School of Journalism grammar test to be given in last 15 minutes of this class.

DUE AT START OF CLASS: Research note draft 2 (incorporating online/social media searches, property/assessment records, and business records)

Section 2: Online and data driven research

5. Oct. 4 Introduction to data and the open data movement. Where to find data.
Examples of data and data stories
Read before class: Data Literacy, chapters 1 to 4
DUE AT START OF CLASS: Research note draft 3 (incorporating online/social media searches, property/assessment records, business records and legal records)

6. Oct. 11..Common pitfalls of data. Making sure it is clean and error free.
Read before class: Data Literacy, chapters 5 to 7
DUE BY START OF CLASS: Data assignment 1

7. Oct. 18 Using a spreadsheet to analyze data
Read before class. Data Literacy, chapters 8 to 10.

8. Oct. 25 Visualizing data.
Read before class. Data Literacy, chapters 11 to 14.
DUE BY START OF CLASS: Data assignment 2.

Section 3: Reporting with numbers

9. Nov. 1 Math stuff you gotta know: Percentages, rates and how to get them, use them and, sadly, abuse them. We’ll work with a series of examples in class and learn how to calculate them in a spreadsheet program.
Read Math Tools for this and the next class.
DUE BY START OF CLASS: Data assignment 3
DUE AT START OF CLASS: News feature story.

10. Nov. 15 Math stuff you gotta know-2: Averages, means and modes and other mysterious statistical concepts.  Finding good uses and poor uses of these measures, and calculating them in our spreadsheet.

11. Nov. 22 Surveys and opinion polls. Learning to read them and use them accurately.  Understanding samples and margins of error. Math test will be held today, in class. Closed book test.

Section 4: The Grand Finale

12. Nov. 29 World Wresearch Federation championship. Woo hoo! You’re done.