Compsci 82, Fall 2009, Sarah Cohen

(from a a 2008 PBS interview)

I usually find and negotiate for the public records we need to document a tip or an idea. Very few are already on the Internet. Instead, I have to figure out who in government has written something down, how it's recorded in computer systems, and then file Freedom of Information Act requests for the portions that are available to the public. Once I get them (or IF I get them), I usually go back and forth between what I think of as field work and lab work, refining the way I look at the data or finding new or better records to avoid pitfalls and take advantage of what the data can tell us. Then I'll go back to the experts, like the Agriculture Department's chief economist, and have them vet our findings.

The idea is to lead the reporting toward good examples, check their accuracy, and then use them to analyze the data to make broader statements. I'll write the sections of the stories or sidebars that I've reported as well. I work a lot with our graphics department to summarize the data, and, more recently, with our online colleagues to make the graphics interactive.

If the embedded player isn't working for you, click here to download the file. Double-click the video to start it.

(from a a 2008 PBS interview)

My first job out of college as an economist involved calling people up who didn't want to talk to me (and didn't have to talk with me) as part of a price survey. I'd ask them about business conditions, what they planned to do about them, and how they'd already reacted. It was great training for basic reporting, since people would avoid me, lie to me and, less frequently, tell me details that I couldn't get any other way.

I also learned the basics of computer programming. The analysis was completely different - there, we were working with our own data and survey design, and here, I am working with a huge variety of public records and documents that change with every part of a story. But it taught me how make a computer do what I want it to do and took away a lot of the mystery.

news release on Prof. Cohen's hiring at Duke