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Back to Tracker Summer 1998
Tech Tip: Quick Queries
Sarah Cohen
You've seen the stories, read the descriptions, and are ready to jump into computer-assisted reporting during this election year. Suddenly, you've found yourself mired in file extensions, SQL queries and dirty data.

Your editor is standing over you, waiting for the six-part series on campaign finance to run next Thursday.

First, calm down. You can use electronic documents in your newsroom. You don't need to document every connection, every dollar and every special interest to generate quick story ideas from a campaign finance database.

Here are some quick-start queries you can try. Each involves the simplest use of a database: Setting up a simple filtering query.

They're all based on finding examples of possible news in a sea of documents that you'd never be able to search by hand. And they don't depend on the more difficult methods in computer-assisted reporting: Cleaning data to generate accurate totals or matching data from two databases. Instead, they depend on your reporting instincts and your knowledge of the campaign.

Think about it. Campaign cash moves in two directions, one less common than the other. When the amount is positive, it means the candidate received some money. So when it's negative it means the campaign gave back some money to a donor. The reason? That's a reporting job. But the returns can give you some tips about who has taken too much or changed their minds about who they'll take money from.

To search for a negative number in Access, for example, enter "<0" (without the quotes) under the Amount field in a new query.

If you live in New York or Los Angeles, the list of famous donors may be too big for you to handle. But for most of us, there are five or 10 people in our communities who, when their names appear in just about any database, equal news. George Steinbrenner in Tampa or George Bush Sr. in Texas can almost always mean news.

If you're not sure who to search for, consider looking through your own news organization's staff-written obituaries. When these are written in advance, it means someone else at the newspaper or station has already decided the people are newsworthy.

You may need to search under the name field using "wildcards," which let you find certain combinations of letters anywhere in the name. So if you want to find George, you'd type Like "*steinbrenner*" under the Name field.

If you live in Florida, the sugar industry and its major players will almost always mean news. If you live in California, the entertainment industry is key. And if you live in Arkansas, Tyson Foods provides a constant stream of controversy. Search your new database for those names, and you'll often find a story worth following.

You may need to use two fields for this search: One for the company name (if you live in a state that allows corporate giving) and one in the Occupation field for individuals. Use the "Or" line in Access to look for either one. Use the "Or" button in FoxPro for the same result. And don't forget those wildcards!

In Kansas City, Joe Stephens used a combination of filtering queries to document bundling in the 1996 Dole campaign. He looked for people who had contributed the most allowed by law to Dole, but then searched that list to find occupations like janitor, bookkeeper, warehouse worker and houseman. Once he'd found likely candidates, he reverted to low-tech reporting methods to prove that the employees and their spouses were reimbursed for the contributions.

Sarah Cohen can be reached by e-mail at sarah@nicar.org
Here are some instructions to create the kind of queries described in the database manager called Access. A query is the process you use in a database manager to ask questions like, "Who got money back from candidates," or "Tell me about Tyson Foods' contributions."

To set up a query in Access, for example, you'll need to follow these steps:

Import the contributions into a blank database.

For federal campaigns, you'll need to link two tables of data: one that lists contributions and another that lists the names of candidates. You may need help on this.

Click on the tab that says, "Queries", and click on the "New" button on the screen. Add the contributions table to the design grid of a new query. Pick out the fields you want to see, including any identifying information.

You pick fields by double-clicking on their names in the window.

Enter your criteria in the "Criteria" line in the lower window. If you want to look for either "houseman" or "janitor" under the Occupation field simply type the word OR to separate them.

If you want to look for those who gave $1000, type 1000 under that Amount field on the same criteria line.